Ethel Waters: A Journey from African American Theater to “The Great White Way”
Today Ethel Waters is revered and considered by many to be one of the greatest American performers, but society’s collective memory tends to forget her journey to this point. The cultural artifacts of Waters’ time raise many questions as to how she as a performer may have been perceived during her early stage career and her transition form African American theater to Broadway shows with largely white casts. Waters’ 1927 performance in Africana, an all black cast performing for a white audience and her role in As Thousands Cheer, considered to be the performance that ushered her into the “Great White Way,” may help in cultivating a better understanding of Waters’ role in the theater at large.[i] The cultural artifacts surrounding these performances fill in the gaps of this transitional narrative. At the same time, the artifacts tell a story in their own right by bring ideas to the forefront that have been neglected in a contemporary understanding of waters momentous shift from the African American stage to Broadway. After examining everything from the marketing of Waters’ performances to the language used to describe these performances, it becomes clear that even after her shift and acceptance by white audiences Waters was still considered an “other” and a “guest star” from an exotic African American theater world.[ii] In this way, the artifacts force our collective memory to not only turn towards Waters’ early stage career and her shift to Broadway, but also allow us to gain an understanding of a more complex and adverse story told in the subtext of her transitional period.
It is all too simple to forget the enormous success Ethel enjoyed in the African American theater scene before ever entering a white theater. It is important to understand the environment that originally informed Waters’ performance style before gaining an understanding of the artifacts and her impetus to eventually go on to Broadway. By 1927, after many tours all over the country in black vaudeville circuits, Waters was beyond celebrity status in the black theater scene, and she was quite content performing for only black audiences. Up until this point her only interactions with white people were with abusive producers and theater owners of the south such as Charles Bailey who threatened to throw Waters out of the theater because of her proud behavior and attitude.[iii] These types of interactions largely formed Water’s initial distaste for white people, but she also explains that her reluctance to perform for white audiences grew out of a difference in audience response. Ethel loved the way that African American audiences gave a constant stream of affirmation during performances by hollering and applauding and she felt that white audiences lacked this ability.[iv] Waters goes as far to attribute this difference in audience response as a fundamental difference in spirits and attitudes saying:
“If whites bored me, it was because they bored themselves. They seemed to get little fun out of life and were desperately lonely…When you worked in front of them you had to do the whole job. But in the Negro night clubs the customers worked with you. . . . They came in with bounce and éclat, checking their troubles at the door.”[v]
We can see why Ethel Waters was very content in Harlem, performing for people who responded in a way she expected and praised her in a way that fueled her performances and propelled her career. It’s important to keep in mind that while there were many forces working to keep African American performers and audience members out of white theater, it was just as much Waters’ decision to abstain from attempting to break into mainstream theater. She even felt a disdain towards other African American artists before her who tried to work their way into white time characterizing these performers as submissive opportunists who agreed to portray “caricatures of human beings” and “buffoons.”[vi]
All of this would change of course when Earl Dancer began to manage Waters’ career. Dancer took an interest in Waters from the beginning and from the very start his agenda was focused on breaking Waters into mainstream theater. Dancer would insist that performing for African American audiences was not enough and she would need to get clubs and bookings at theaters with wealthy white patrons.[vii] The constant stream of positive feedback from prominent white critics worked to inspire confidence and fuel Dancer’s agenda. These white critics served as an authoritative voice on African American theater in newspapers read largely by white audiences. The highest praise came from a white critic named Ashton Stevens whose authority on the subject would propel Waters into white theaters. After viewing Africana, Stevens would say that Ethel Waters was the “finest artist of her race and generation.”[viii]
Steven’s praise was considered to be a momentous occasion in Waters’ career, yet it is important to take note of the way in which Stevens qualifies Waters’ race. At this point critics considered Waters to be a great African American artist not a great American artist. Much of this qualifying language would be used to describe Ethel Waters in Plantation Days which opened at the Chicago Grand Theater in 1922. While white critics were amazed and felt the need to relay Waters stage presence to white readers, their language limited Waters to the scope of the African American theater. Many other critics along with Stevens reviewed Waters’ performance in a way that not only praised her but introduced her to white readers and explained the African American theater scene to white readers. In one revue of Africana the critic opens by explaining that Africana was performed in the same theater as Shuffle Along.[ix] Although Shuffle Along was performed a couple of years before Africana, Shuffle Along was one of the few performances with a black cast that was well known in white theater circles, and it may have been a white readers only point of reference in African American theater. The same critic continues to package Ethel Waters in a way that white audiences could comprehend by describing her as a “dusky Charlotte Greenwood.” [x] In this way the critic is able to liken Waters to a white performer that white readers would have been familiar with.
In fact, Waters was frequently compared to other white female performers of her time in an interesting attempt to popularize her and explain her style to white audiences. Even with all of her disdain towards white audiences and performers Waters admits to enjoying being likened to white female performers. Waters recounts a time when a critic described her as an “ebony Nora Bayes,” and goes on to say that this was a wonderful compliment. [xi] In his famous praise of Ethel Waters, Ashton Stevens says that she reminded him of Yvette Guilbert, a very popular white vaudeville actress of the time.[xii] Ebony, dusky, tanned, these were qualifiers usually used to describe Waters that limited her to a certain sphere — a sphere of black performers that could only strive to be likened to popular white performers of the time. Paradoxically, while critics such as Stevens worked to expose white audiences to Waters’ talent, they also belittle her by suggesting that the highest praise could be a comparison to a white performer. Even as Waters was ushered into white time she was viewed and would continue to be viewed as an African American guest to the white theater scene.
With all this praise of her performances in the black vaudeville circuit in in Harlem, especially after Steven’s praise of Plantation Times, it seemed inevitable that Ethel would eventually start to perform in Broadway theaters. It took years for Dancer to convince Waters to performer for larger white audiences.[xiii] The first time this would happen was in Africana, when Waters performed on a Broadway stage in an all black cast. While this performance would be Waters first time on Broadway, the performance and the critics suggestions of the performance would continue to work to place her in a distinctly African American box.
One review in Times Magazine simultaneously praises Ethel while perhaps while portraying African American theater at large as primitive. The critic explains that as music of the time tends to mimic the “ebullient crooning and outflung gesturing of primitive Africans,” the African American revue will inevitably become more popular.[xiv] Again, the critic feels the need to explain African American theater and music to white theatergoers and insists that the African American revue will become more popular. Of course, his racial and diminutive language can tell us a lot as to how audiences may have viewed the revue. We can see that critics focused on the exoticism of the show and critics would continue to objectify Ethel Waters as a product of this by saying that she “employs mannerisms frankly and disarmingly Negroid” and describing her and the chorus girls hips which were “well made” and “went three ways at once.” [xv] Yet, criticisms that objectified in their praise were still promising for the young actress. Even African American critics felt they could gain credibility by citing the high praise of white critics.
Within the context of an all-black cast, “negro revue” Ethel Waters enjoyed much of the same fame and praise that she was used to in Harlem. There was no doubt that Waters was the major selling point in Africana, Earl Dancer made sure of that. Besides the rave revues by critics we can see that Ethel Waters was the main selling point by taking a look at the marketing of the revue. On the original ticket stub pictured and taken from Carl Van Vechten collection, we can see that Ethel Waters name is written in the largest font rivaled only by the title of the revue and Earl Dancer’s name.
The wording is also significant “Earl dancer announces the premier performance of Ethel Waters in the New Colored Musical Revue Africana. The stub gives Dancer credit in ushering in Ethel Waters to the Broadway stage. While the ticket stub shows Waters as the main attraction, we must remember that she is only the main attraction within the context in what the ticket reminds us is the “New Colored Musical Revue”. Perhaps even more telling is the Vechten’s newspaper cut out of a drawing of Waters entitled “Ethel Waters, Harlem’s First Actress in Africana”
It is an advertisement for Africana and yet there are no dancers in the background and we see not set or inkling of what the revue may be about. The focus is Waters’ face, which at that point would have been enough to draw people to the revue.
The revue itself was praised as a distinctly African American performance. One critic explains that Africana is a product of a “negro invasion” of the New York theater. [xvi] And after paying many compliments to Ethel Waters, the same critic goes on to say that Africana “for all its external gaudiness and its copying of the Broadway mise en scene it retains a purely racial quality.”[xvii] It is clear the critic feels the African American revue was attempting and failed at copying the visual themes and modes of storytelling of Broadway shows with white casts. He felt there was no way for the show to escape its racial aspect and suggests that the show was trying to be something other than a distinctly “Negro” Musical Revue and it failed in doing so.
The cultural artifacts at hand and the critics of the time suggest that in Ethel Waters’ performance in Africana race still very much placed Ethel in a separate group in which she was to be evaluated from. It would have been very difficult for the audience of the time to have thought of Ethel Waters in a less racial way when they had only seen her perform in an all black cast in Africana. Not to mention that Africana itself was a revue with minstrel elements and a cakewalk. These aspects of the performance would serve to farther exoticize the production and make it a distinctly African American revue.
After Africana Waters would continue to perform, usually singing, for all white audiences at various famous venues. As her career launched into mainstream theaters, she performed in venues that would not allow black patrons. Her most notable performance during this time was her song “Stormy Weather” which she sang at the Cotton Club in 1933. A program pictured here from one of Waters’ performances at the Cotton Club clearly depicts the kinds of patrons that were expected to attend the venue
The caption reads “The Aristocrat of Harlem” and a tall white male with a large top hat is pictured with two tall white women in each arm. The women wear ball gowns and fur. Perhaps most indicative of the Cotton Club’s racist atmosphere is the depiction of the black man greeting the three white patrons. It is difficult to say if it is a black male or a white male in black face, but there is certainly a minstrel element to the man’s make up and dress. It is inside this exact program that we see Waters’ name listed in large letters. Audiences probably would have read wonderful reviews and would be thrilled to see the black singer, and yet the cover still enforced the type of white supremacy that was expected of a theater that did not allow black patrons. It is important for us to remember in all the praise we read of Ethel Waters at this time, that this was still the world she was performing in, that at this time she would be considered a wonderful African American blues singer by white patrons but their perception of Ethel Waters was still framed by race.
Up until this point audience members’ exposure to Ethel Waters was limited to revues with all black casts in a designated “negro revue” or they would have heard her sing on records or in theaters with white audience members. Her performance in As Thousands Cheer would be crucial in exposing Ethel Waters in a different light. The revue opened at Music Box Theater in 1933 and it would be Waters’ first performance with a white cast. In fact it would be one of the first performances ever on Broadway in which a black woman appeared in a Broadway show with a white cast.[xviii] It was agreed upon by most critics that Ethel Waters stole the show with her song suppertime. We can see pictured a collage of Vechten’s in which there are many articles praising Waters’ performance
We can see that Waters even has a very large presence in the cartoon cut out pictured here where she is much more prominent than her famous white costars Marilyn Miller and Helen Broderick.
Still, Waters was very limited. She was not allowed to appear on stage with white costars in any of the sketches or songs.[xix] While she enjoyed much praise by many critics, her presence in the playbill of the performance was very minimal, especially when we think of her presence in advertisement for shows in the black vaudeville circuit or promotional artifacts for Africana
We can see that from the front of the playbill it looks as though it will be an all white cast and Waters is not pictured at all. One can only imagine how Ethel Waters must have felt. Donald Bogle nicely places us in the story explaining that at this point Waters had already enjoyed immense success both in the United States and Europe, but this show still afforded her a once in a life time opportunity and would expose her to a different world.[xx]
The irony of the discriminatory practices in the theater was that the content of Ethel Waters song “Supper Time” was anti-lynching in its theme and told the story of an women making dinner for her husband who was lynched. It is unclear as to whether audiences understood exactly what the song was about. Nevertheless, there was an overwhelming response of empathy by the audience. People were able to relate and connect with Ethel Waters. What the song lacked in ferocity it made up for in universality. Yet it seems this universality was the cost of any explicit political statement. In a way, this describes much of Waters’ career. White audiences were able to relate with her sheer passion for life and song but they did not want to know the details of her personal strife as an African American woman on a Broadway stage.
Perhaps the statement that gets to the root of this all came from Donald Bogle when he says “What it boiled down to was that As Thousands Cheer was a white show with a special guest star appearance by a colored artist. Was this second-class treatment? Yes, but Waters knew that this was a unique opportunity . . .” [xxi] This goes to say that even as Ethel Waters shifted from black circuits, to all black casts on Broadway in Africana, to performing with a white cast for a white audience in As Thousands Cheershe was still limited in that she was perceived as a African American performer merely visiting the “great white stage.” With all the implicit and explicit restrictions in place at the time she would not be considered a great American performer she would have been considered a great African American performer. Of course, we know today that Waters has had a profound impact on American theater at large. It is important that we see the scope that Ethel Waters inhabited as a performer during this time and that we understand the type of constraints that Waters was functioning within in order to have a more nuanced understanding of her profound influence as a great American performer.
i Bogle, Donald. Heat Wave. New York : HarperCollins, 2011. Print. (136) back to text
ii Ibid i. back to text
iii Waters, Ethel. His Eye is On the Sparrow. New York : De Capo Press, 1950. Print. (166) back to text
iv Bogle, Donald. Heat Wave. 102. back to text
v Waters, Ethel His Eye is On the Sparrow 194. back to text
vi Waters, Ethel His Eye is On the Sparrow 195. back to text
vii Ibid iv. back to text
viii “Theatrical Critics Throughout Country Sing Praise Of Ethel Waters In Her Big Revue, Africana”. Pittsburgh Courier [Pittsburgh] 28 JAN 1928 Web. 29 Mar. 2013. http://search.proquest.com/news/docview/201894848/citation/13D1E9B5C6491EB718E/1?accountid=15172. back to text
ix “Africana a Swift Musical Revue: Ethel Waters Leads in Show With Champion Cake Walker” and Amusing Shetches. . . " New York Times [New York ] 12 JUL 1927 Web. 29 Mar. 2013. http://search.proquest.com/docview/104157079?accountid=15172. back to text
x Ibid ix. back to text
xi Waters, Ethel His Eye is On the Sparrow 175. back to text
xii Ibid ix. back to text
xiii Bogle, Donald. Heat Wave.104. back to text
xiv “New Plays in Manhattan”. Time Magazine. 25 JUL 1927: n. page. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <yale university electronic source>. back to text
xv Ibid xiv. back to text
xvi Ibid xiv. back to text
xvii Ibid xiv. back to text
xviii Bourne, Stephen. Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather. Lanham : Scarecrow Press, 2007. Print. 42 back to text
xix Ibid xvii. back to text
xx Bogle, Donald Heat Wave 222. back to text
xxi Ibid xx. back to text