Black History Feature of the Day: Celebrating Actress Ethel Waters and Actor David Oyelowo

Ethel Waters: “The Member of the Wedding”

In an earlier article, I wrote about Ethel Waters’ fabulous performance in the film, “A Cabin in the Sky.” Today, I want to highlight another masterful performance by this gifted woman.

I stayed up late last night to watch the film “The Member of the Wedding,” starring the great actress Julie Harris. I did this because I first saw this film when I was a little girl, and it affected me deeply, even then.

This was a film adaptation of a Broadway play, which was itself an adaptation of Carson McCuller’s novel, by the author herself.

As a young girl, I somehow related to the preteen angst of the main character, Frankie (Julie Harris), a misfit girl being cared for by a Black housekeeper, Bernice (Ethel Waters), in a small Southern town.

Frankie was so desperate to belong somewhere—anywhere—that she was driving herself, and everyone around her, mad. Her brother was about to be married, and Frankie decided that she was going to be “a member” of this wedding. She was going to marry herself to her brother and his new wife, even packing a bag and hiding in the couple’s car, expecting to be able to start a new life with them. She believed that by joining herself to them, her lonely “I” could be part of their “We.”

[I had a similar moment of abandonment when one of my aunts got married—as they took off for their honeymoon, I was crying (I’ll never see them again!)]

Frankie’s cousin, John Henry (Brandon deWilde), a boy of about 8, lived next door to Frankie, and was always visiting Frankie’s house, playing with Frankie’s doll (which she was now “too old” to play with) and dressing up in Bernice’s hat, purse, and shoes.

I give you all these details as background.

What I realized from watching this film last night was that Bernice was the true anchor of this film. And it is Ethel Waters’ dignified and understated performance that shines brightest.

The fact is that Frankie and John Henry are mirrors of Bernice’s life: Frankie was born on the day that Bernice’s first husband of four (and her one true love) died, and Frankie’s angst reflects Bernice’s loss. And in the final, poignant scene of the film, we learn that John Henry, a poor innocent homosexual child, is a reflection of Bernice’s greatest—but barely hinted at—loss: the loss of her own son,  named John Henry.

As a girl, I fell in love with the actress Julie Harris (1925-2013) after watching this film, and I followed every other role of hers I possibly could. That a 27-year-old woman could play a 12-going-on-13-year-old girl so brilliantly is remarkable. Astonishing. Ms. Harris enjoyed a long and brilliant career.

But now, I am in love with the actress Ethel Waters (1896-1977). The daughter of a 13-year-old rape victim in Philadelphia, Ms. Waters essentially raised herself, and became an acclaimed singer, dancer, and actress.  To achieve such heights after such humble beginnings is itself a remarkable achievement, and one that deserves to be celebrated.

For more information about Ethel Waters, see the following links: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0914083/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethel_Waters

David Oyelowo: “Selma”

What can I say about this gifted actor? First, I’ll thank Brad Pitt for teaching the world how to pronounce his name—in a song meme!

Second, I’ll thank Lawrence O’Donnell, of MSNBC, who last night shared an outtake from “Selma,” provided by the director of the film, showing the amazing Standing Ovation given to Mr. Oyelowo by the entire cast and crew after he filmed the final scene of the film.

And last, I’ll thank David Oyelowo himself, for having the foresight, the heart, the vision, the talent, and the sheer stamina and persistence to pour the last 7 years of his life into preparing himself for—and, indeed, becoming—Dr. Martin Luther King.

Those tears he shed on Oscar night were not just for the song “Glory”. Nor were they even tears of “loss” for not having won the golden statuette. Those were tears of pride, accomplishment, and perhaps even a little exhaustion, from achieving his biggest dream: giving the greatest performance of his career, thus far.

Imagine. It took an African-British man to portray one of the greatest African-American men in the world, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I can’t wait to see what Mr. Oyelowo does next.

For more information on David Oyelowo, see the following links: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0654648/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Oyelowo

 

 

 

 


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