Terry Burrell’s ‘Ethel’ finds humor in the blues

"Ethel." March 25-April 17. $20-$40. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org/ethel.

Terry Burrell knew that she was going to need Ethel Waters one day.

It was 1990, she was performing on the Broadway tour of “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” and it occurred to her that, in order to sustain a career in show business, she would need something of her own. Some of her cast mates knew the late actress-singer Waters and shared stories about her on tour, prompting Burrell to start keeping a notebook and writing down everything she could find.

Then, years later, she picked up a copy of the Waters film “Cabin in the Sky” and watched it with new eyes. She also found Waters’ biography in a Harlem bookshop.

Those varied sources set the foundation for Burrell’s one-woman show “Ethel,” running on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage March 25-April 17.

Waters started her career dancing on the black vaudeville circuit, and went on to become one of the most regarded jazz and blues singers of her day and the first to record “Stormy Weather.” Waters also starred in several films, including “Pinky” (for which she received an Oscar nomination) and “Cabin in the Sky.”

Burrell researched, wrote and stars in “Ethel,” which weaves details of Waters’ life with 15 of her iconic songs. For example, when Waters moves to New York City, she sings “Old Man Harlem,” and “Travelin’ All Alone Light” comes after she talks about her three husbands.

In addition to Waters, Burrell portrays 10 influential people in the singer’s life in order to tell the story.

“Every time I got a new fact, I wrote it in a notebook and I still have all of the notebooks,” the Roswell resident said. “When I was writing the script, I went subject by subject — men, finances, her childhood — and asked myself how she would talk about these things to a friend.”

In 2010, after working on “Showboat” in Minneapolis, Burrell came back to Atlanta and gave an early draft of the script for critique to friend and fellow actress Loretta Devine.

Devine encouraged her to continue, so months later she reached out to another friend from Georgia, “Avenue Q” Tony Award-winning choreographer Kenneth L. Roberson, about directing the show, and they started working on the script in the living room of his New York City apartment over tea.

Burrell, whose credits include the original Broadway run of “Dreamgirls,” “Three Penny Opera,” “Into the Woods” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” was born in Trinidad and moved to Queens, N.Y., with her mother and six siblings when she was 6 years old. She moved to metro Atlanta in 2001, but had been traveling here to perform since 1997.

She knew in junior high school that she wanted to sing and dance for a living. It was in a dance class in the 1980s taught by legendary jazz choreographer Frank Hatchett that Burrell first met Roberson, and their paths continued to cross over the years.

“Ethel” premiered at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in 2012, and two years later, Burrell asked the Alliance’s artistic director, Susan Booth, if she could send the script for consideration, since she had previously performed there in “The Women of Brewster Place,” “Jar the Floor” and “A Christmas Carol.” A year later, Booth asked her for a meeting.

“The support that I have felt at the Alliance is unbelievable,” Burrell said.

Waters, who was born in 1896 and died in 1977, grew up in Chester, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, where she was raised by her grandmother.

Off-screen, she had a reputation for being temperamental and brash, and her love life, which entailed several marriages as well as rumored affairs with women, would be tabloid headlines today.

“(Ethel) was not a loved child,” Burrell said. “She was rejected by her mother and raised in the streets, but she loved fur coats, custom gowns and fine jewelry. In the show, adult Ethel is always talking, but there are flashbacks to her childhood — she got married for the first time at 13 years old.”

“Ethel Waters was sort of lost in the shuffle of history, upstaged by Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker,” Roberson said. “That said, we’re not imitating Ethel Waters. There are certain inflections and vocals that Terry will do like her, because that works for her own voice.”

In the show, Burrell has infused what could be a tragic story with laughs.

“This piece is entertaining and carries the message that you are not a product of your environment,” she said. “I try to imbue the story with a lot of humor, and it’s inspirational.”