The Struggles and Triumphs of Bessie Jones, Big Mama Thornton, and Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters - Part 2: 1930s
Waters’ Performance of “Supper Time” in As Thousands Cheer
In 1933, Ethel Waters starred alongside Helen Broderick, Marilyn Miller, and Clifton Webb in the musical revue As Thousands Cheer produced by Sam H. Harris. The revue featured music written by Irving Berlin and sketches written by Moss Hart. The show was designed in the form of a musical newspaper that addressed contemporary topics. This included sketches on top actors, socialites, and political figures, such as President Herbert Hoover and Mahatma Gandhi. Each sketch would have a designated headline projected onto the stage curtain.
Waters performed four musical numbers in the show: “Heat Wave,” “Harlem on My Mind,” “To Be or Not to Be,” and “Supper Time.” Through “Supper Time,” Waters performed a socially conscious song on lynching that reflected the racial struggles of African Americans at the time. Waters depicted the story of a mother who must inform her children that their father has been lynched. According to Stephen Bourne, Irving Berlin had been advised to remove the musical number from the show, but he wanted to include a serious song in the show and he had faith that Waters could effectively perform it.
The following lyrics from "Supper Time" indicate the agony that the mother feels as she struggles to prepare the table at suppertime:
While I keep explaining
When they ask me where he's gone
While I keep from crying
When I bring the supper on
(Full lyrics here)
In Waters' interview with Willie Ruff, she revealed the story behind the piece. Berlin was inspired to write the song when an African American man was lynched after being accused of rape in Florida.
According to Waters, “He [Berlin] wanted to do something dramatic to feel, to bring home to the people as a whole about the cruelty of mob violence. And it was a man that was lynched and he was trying to find a man that they could have a scene to dramatize this situation.” Berlin originally wanted George Dewey Washington to sing "Supper Time."
However, Berlin changed his mind about using a male actor after seeing Waters perform “Stormy Weather” at the Cotton Club. Berlin approached Waters at the club to see if she could perform his piece in a way that would enable the audiences to feel the anguish of the family of the lynched man.
Waters also divulged to Ruff that she drew from her own personal experiences with lynching in order to convey the family’s pain. For Waters, she was not acting but rather reliving that pain. In particular, she referenced the lynching of a man that occurred before one of her performances in Macon, Georgia.
She stated, “They had just removed, say about a half hour before I got there, the remains of a person that had been lynched. A man that had been lynched. And, you never sensed the pall that comes over." Waters also revealed that she stayed at the home of the man's family. She stated, “That's where they took in performers. And nothing was said, but oh the grief…and the fear.” In addition, she revealed that she had almost been lynched herself in Georgia after a run-in with a theater operator.
As Thousands Cheer ran from September 30, 1933 to September 4, 1934 with a total of 400 shows. The revue was a major hit and Waters’ role symbolized a major barrier broken as she became a top-paid African American actress on Broadway. However, Waters was segregated from her white co-stars as she did not appear in any sketches with them. Stephen Bourne revealed that her co-stars refused to bow with her at the curtain call until Irving Berlin intervened.
*Transcripts for interview clips on this page are available here