Ethel Waters was born in Pennsylvania in the late 19th century to an extremely poor family. At a young age Ethel started stealing food and running errands for criminals until, at twelve, she felt she had found Jesus and started attending convent school. That same year though, still a child, she got married. Her husband was an abusive man and they divorced the following year.
Waters then began dreaming of becoming a maid to a wealthy white woman who would take her travelling around the world. She did indeed go on to work as a chambermaid in Philadelphia. It was while working there that she was noticed by two vaudeville producers when she sang in public.
This marked the beginning of Waters’ music career.
By the age of seventeen, she was singing professionally in Baltimore under the stage name ‘Sweet Mama Stringbean’, and from there she moved to New York City. Soon she would leave the vaudeville scene for the Harlem nightclubs. By 1925 she was performing at Harlem’s well-known Plantation Club.
Her singing encompassed both the raw tones of the Baptist songs and a more refined, enunciated style. This combination made Waters a unique singer. Because of her technique, she could sing different genres of music, from classic blues to jazz to musical theatre. Her nightclub gigs led to her Broadway debut: in 1927, she performed in the all-black revue Africana. By that point, she was dividing her time between theatre, nightclubs and eventually, cinema. Between 1930 and 1931, she performed in the Broadway musicals Blackbirds and Rhapsody in Black.
Her appearance in the 1933’s musical As Thousands Cheer marked her first role in a cast which wasn’t all-black. It sealed her success as a jazz and blues singer, with composers writing songs especially for her, or coming to associate pieces from the canon specifically with her, including Dinah and Stormy Weather.
In the following decade, Waters’ success on Broadway continued as she appeared in both musicals and drama, including the musical Cabin in the Sky, in which she acted alongside Lena Horne, and a stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’s novel The Member of the Wedding for which she won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
In 1939 Waters had a dramatic role in DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s Mamba’s Daughters, which premiered at New York’s Empire Theatre; it was said to have earned Waters seventeen curtain calls.
Waters was not afraid of challenging the roles she was cast in; she was especially keen to show that big African American women could be seductive, playful, and not only suitable to play mammies. She was an inventive, talented performer, but some said she was a difficult artist to work with. She, perhaps fairly or unfairly, developed an increasingly bad reputation, which left her with little work for the best part of the mid-1940s.
By the time she was cast as the mammy in Elia Kazan’s Pinky in 1948, she was almost begging for work. But once again, Waters picked herself up and her performance earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination. It was the first time a back actress was nominated since Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind.
Waters went on to star in a number of films, including Cairo and The Sound and the Fury, but it was her role in a film adaptation of The Member of the Wedding that confirmed her cinematic talent. Released shortly after the publication of Waters’ autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow in 1951, the film sealed in the mind of the audience the idea that Waters was in fact the characters she played: she was a woman who received blow after blow at the hands of lovers and bad turns of fortune; a woman who had suffered and survived a heritage of slavery. Some believe that it was Waters’ role as Berenice in The Member of the Wedding which started the archetype of the big, strong African American woman who symbolised the dignity and resilience of Black Americans.
Despite the film’s success, Waters’ career then entered another phase of decline. Some attribute this to the fact that the Black Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s cast a new light on the mammy roles that Waters would traditionally play, which, for all her interpretative efforts, came to be seen as derogatory and old-fashioned, but achieving consistent success as a black actress was never going to be easy.
Waters worked in television more sporadically, and then returned to singing in nightclubs.
She died in September 1977 at 80 years of age from cancer.
©The Heroine Collective 2019 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include: Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films. New York and London: Continuum. 1973. // Bourne, Stephen. Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather. Lanham, Toronto, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2007. // Encylopaedia Britannica, Ethel Waters https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ethel-Waters // McElrath, Jessica. “Remembering the Career of Ethel Waters” // Waters, Ethel. His Eye Is on the Sparrow. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1951.