Sweet Mama Stringbean” was the name that attached itself to teenaged Ethel Waters when she started singing in nightclubs back in 1913. But the Oscar-nominated Waters of “The Member of the Wedding” and “Cabin in the Sky” became anything but lanky. New Federal Theater’s bioplay with songs draws a line from point A to point B, with a handful of fine actors compensating for Beth Turner’s rough-hewn dramaturgy.
The odds of finding a mother-and-daughter team to play the young and old Ethel are not high, yet here they are at the Henry Street Settlement. Sandra Reaves-Phillips (“Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.”) has the look of the older Waters, with that same smile that can light up a room. Marishka Shanice Phillips, who appears to be in her mid-30s, doesn’t look like Ethel but has the requisite spirit. Most importantly, they can both sing, shaking the rafters on occasion.
Turner leans heavily on flashbacks. Waters, circa 1957, is old, unemployable and tipping the scales at 350 pounds. Where did her life go wrong? Ghostly images of her mother are outspoken: Ethel forsook God for mammon, which the play illustrates through a series of scenes from the life of Sweet Mama Stringbean.
Turner tells the story, but more episodically than dramatically. Songs from Ethel’s career — “Am I Blue,” “Stormy Weather,” “Heat Wave” — accompany much of the action, although the latter part of the evening covers a considerable amount of plot-intensive musical material presumably written for the play.
Director Elizabeth Van Dyke makes effective use of the available space and supplements the action with effective use of movie clips; still, the holes in the play are very much in evidence.
The enterprise is nevertheless watchable thanks to the ministrations of the cast, and not only the two stars. Darryl Jovan Williams and Gary E. Vincent play numerous roles, including a fair share of worthless men. (Williams is also an asset at the piano.) Cjay Hardy Philip plays a variety of other women — friends, companions and more — only to stun the audience at evening’s end with a surprisingly strong scene as Ethel’s mother.
The effect is of a roughly spun burlap bag, with enough shiny gems poking out to make you want to look inside. The two Phillipses, out there singing as Ethel Waters, may make it worth the trip to Henry Street.