Black Pearl Sings! covers a lot of territory telling what happens when Susannah, an educated musicologist travels into the deep South seeking old folk songs containing hints of African tradition and style. Susannah finds Pearl, an illiterate, uneducated woman with the searing contralto-lilted voice of freedom laced with hints of slavery, serving time in prison. To disclose her crime would distract too much from the delectable journey that playwright Frank Higgins takes us on – suffice it to say that a man was involved, along with Pearl’s teenage daughter, so in her mind, “she was making the world a better place” before the name “Lorena Bobbitt” signified an act of righteous vindication.
Playwright Frank Higgins packs the script with delicious details about the two characters and their lives, sets up their respective journeys with expeditious timing and speed, and keeps raising the stakes for their respective goals – Pearl learns to maneuver the system to get her freedom so she can search for her young adult daughter, and Susannah hopes to secure the mother lode recording– a song that somehow survived the wretched Middle Passage and generations of slavery. Susannah will stop at nothing to prove her worth and assure professional achievement, tenure and sustenance. Meanwhile, Pearl, who is baffled that white folk would pay good money to record “poor colored” songs, cons and cajoles to get find her daughter. At some point, however, even she has to grapple with questions of integrity, wondering if she’s selling out her cultural heritage and legacy to the highest bidder for temporary gain.
Higgins’ wonderful script raises all kinds of questions about gender bias, racism, cultural legacy and personal freedom. The two characters start out in the drab concrete confines of prison’s unforgiving walls and bars with Pearl even toting a heavy ball and chain, an obvious symbol of immobility and captivity. How this caged bird sings is anybody’s guess, but sing she does, and within moments, the bartering begins – a couple of coins for a song, then a piece of pie, and ultimately plans for a pardon.
As Susannah, Erika Rolfsrud demonstrates her own adept talents accompanying herself with an autoharp, showing how musical passages and lyrics from West Virginia hillbilly territory actually derived from Irish folksongs, a fascinating taste of music anthropology. Higgins is a master of make-the-point-and-get-out-the-way school of playwriting. He lets the songs which were apparently carefully and precisely selected, move the story forward.
And indeed they do, especially when delivered by the incredible Tony Award winning vocals of Tonya Pinkins under the music direction by William Hubbard. Pinkins’ hums alone are soul stirring arias, and when she adds the trembling lyrics of tribulation and oppression, mixed with gospel uplifting endurance, well, she takes you to a different place. That’s all I can say. It’s just that good. And authentic. As Pearl, Pinkins balances her soaring vocals with intense dramatic focus, an almost monotone delivery that seethes with quiet rage underneath. She is not to be messed with.
Authenticity. Higgins explores that term, what it means, its impact and relevance, throughout the play but especially in the second act after Susannah has secured a grant from the Library of Congress and they have to demonstrate their findings to the academics, critics and society. Pearl who was almost unintelligible and rigid with hardcore resentment and rage in the first act has now blossomed into a gracious social butterfly, stealing the show, comfortably adlibbing and bantering with the audience in a fairytale like metamorphosis, unrealistic but still lots of fun. Set designer, Tony Cisek shows his perfect alignment with Higgins’ vision when the set transitions from concrete jungle to art filled New York chic apartment. In a deliciously rare occasion, the set actually got well deserved applause, as did the work of costume designer Toni-Leslie James with the rags to glamour of the women’s stylish attire, flair, furs and maybe most importantly, Pearl’s newly coiffed and pressed hair.
The women in their New York vogue are far removed from the leech filled swamp where Pearl spent her last weeks before the governor’s pardon (arranged by Susannah). But like the song’s roots that dig deep into ancestral grounds, Pearl is deeply rooted in her own growing self knowledge and awareness as she seeks respect and authenticity. She butts up against racial stereotyping and has to decide where to draw the line in sharing her songs where her performance can spiral carelessly into buffoonery in a heartbeat.
The script does an excellent job laying out the issues and allows the characters to explore their increasing trust in each other naturally with tense moments of apprehension. Director Jennifer L. Nelson shapes the moments with clarity and a steady hand, bringing the characters to direct, even hostile confrontation and meaningful resolution. Including the audience as part of the choral discovery in one of the passages is an engaging interlude that helps reinforce the musical lessons and prepares for the disturbance which is sure to follow.
Pearl’s story brings to mind Langston Hughes’ line from ‘Mother and Son’ “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”. Even when it appears that she’s got it all and got it good, Pearl wrestles with the uncertainties of what if, why didn’t she, and what now? The premise for the story apparently comes from circumstances involving the amazing folk musician Huddie William Ledbetter (Leadbelly) who was languishing in a Texas prison when he was recorded by a folksong collector from the Library of Congress. That Higgins refashioned it into a convincing story interconnecting two women’s lives is an art unto itself. With its references to Lincoln, the Union Army, and the Civil War, Black Pearl Sings! is a stellar opening season production at Ford’s Theatre and a fitting tribute to all the artists involved.
Black Pearl Sings!
Written by Frank Higgins
Directed by Jennifer Nelson
Produced by Fords Theater
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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