Playwright Frank Higgins takes us on his journey of writing Black Pearl Sings! – from researching American folklore, discovering the story that led to creating his characters, finding an African song which would serve as a powerful moment in the play, the workshops, the first production, the endless rewrites, and, finally, the opening at Ford’s Theatre.
Joel: Tell us about your writing career.
Frank: I started off as a poet, then changed to being a playwright after I noticed my best poems seemed to have a story and people in them. My first play was an ambitious though messy piece called The Great War which director Alan Schneider saw at a regional festival of the Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival. He encouraged me to write for the theater, and at the time of his sudden death, we were looking for a place to work together on what was my ambitious though messy second play.
The other plays I’ve written include The Sweet By ‘n’ By, which was produced with Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, WMKS: Where Music Kills Sorrow, which is set in 1935, and uses old time songs from the public domain as does Black Pearl Sings! My play Miracles was produced at the Barter Theater, the Old Globe and the Fulton Opera House” before coming to NYC. I’ve just finished a play with music called American Delilah, which is set in the 1920s and uses period music.
Joel: Take us on the journey of writing and getting Black Pearl Sings! to The Ford’s Theatre stage.
Frank: I wrote the first draft of the play in 2006. It had a reading, and then a workshop production at the Barter Theater in Virginia. Its official opening was at Stages Repertory Theater in Houston – where by happenstance – the surviving Tuskegee Airmen saw it, and liked it. I thought/hoped the play would be a natural fit for Ford’s Theater, so I contacted Mark Ramont at Ford’s Theatre about the play. Mark liked the play, and showed the script to Paul Tetreault, the executive director, and also to Jennifer Nelson, who eventually directed the piece.
Joel: The show was inspired by the story of the great Huddie Leadbetter, better known as “Leadbelly”, and musicologist John Lomax, – who schlepped around with his very heavy recording equipment – collecting, recording, and preserving the folklore of Texas and the Southwest. Tell us how their story inspired you to write Black Pearl Sings!,
Frank: I found the Leadbelly/John Lomax story intriguing for a number of reasons:
Lomax’s goal of recording the music of ‘common people’ was a great goal. Lomax’s racial views were not great, or enlightened. And when the two came to NYC in the 30’s, Lomax in fact had Leadbelly perform at first in prison stripes. I used that idea in a modified form in Black Pearl Sings! For a couple of years, I’d toyed with the idea of writing a play about Leadbelly and John Lomax, but something kept me from doing it. When I discovered the actual African song that appears in Black Pearl Sings!, I realized why I never tried to write the Lomax/Leadbelly play. Lomax never seems to have considered that there might be an African song that came to America on the slave ships that might still exist. Susannah, the song collector in Black Pearl Sings!, is convinced that there might still be a surviving African song from pre-slavery times, but the clock is ticking, and she must find it before the people die off.
Joel: Talk about the Africa song, how you found it, and its significance in the show.
Frank: I found the song in a documentary called ‘The Language You Cry In’. It’s the story of a song that a professor recorded in the 30’s from a Gullah woman and her granddaughter. Decades later, a professor from Sierra Leone recognized some of the words from a dialect from his country. The song has been sung for hundreds of years at the graveside of recently dead elders. The lyrics of the song are meant to summon the elders to help bring the soul of the recently dead to the other side. The current day professors finally found a village in Sierra Leone where a woman recognized the song. The song had gone from Africa to America on the slave ships hundreds of years before.
Joel: When did you interest in American folklore begin?
Frank: I traveled through the Appalachian mountains and fell in love with the region. Most of the old folk songs and ballads there came from the British Isles. The Simon and Garfunkel song “Scarborough Fair” is actually an old time courting song, usually called “The Cambric Shirt.” I wish I had gotten more music into my play The Sweet By ‘n’ By, which is set in Appalachia.
Joel: You must have gone through a painstaking process of selecting the songs for Black Pearl Sings!
Frank: When I was researching the music for my play WMKS: Where Music Kills Sorrow, I came across some of the songs that several years later would go into Black Pearl Sings! I wanted a couple of songs that became well known, though we would hear them in their early – and better – versions such as “Down On Me” and “Kum Ba Yah.” (I disliked the folksy “Cumbaya” that we’ve all heard; but the old time African-influenced version from the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands is magical). Along with a couple of songs that become well known, I thought the show needed a couple of songs that fewer people would know. There needed to be songs from the Southern Mountains, which the Susannah character is an expert on. The song she sings in the last scene, “Six Feet of Earth,” rocks me back in my seat through its simplicity, and I suspected from the outset – that the reveal of the African song would end the play.
Frank: It was more likely that a song would be passed on from one generation to the next in a matriarchal situation.
Joel: Tell us about Susannah and Pearl.
Frank: Susannah is a song collector for the Library of Congress. Pearl has served 10 years in a Texas prison for murder. Susannah is searching through the prisons for old time songs since she believes the inmates will be more likely to know them, since they are not exposed to popular culture.
Joel: You have two amazing actresses in the show – Tonya Pinkins and Erika Rolfsrud. Did you write the play with them in mind?
Frank: No, I tried to write the characters and be fair to both of them so that actresses like Tonya and Erika would want to play them.
Joel: What is it about their performances that make you smile?
Frank: Tonya Pinkins has some magical moments during the singing of the African song. She’s a wonderful combination of warmth, toughness, and sensuality, plus her singing puts me in Heaven. Erika has the talent to portray a gritty woman who is making her way alone in the tough times of 1935, yet you can see the warmth and passion that the character would show – if she had chosen to live her life a different way. It’s easy to play one or the other, hard to capture both at the same time. And Erika learned to play the autoharp for this production.
Joel: Tell us about working with director Jennifer Nelson, and her designers – Tony Cisek (set), Toni-Leslie James (costumes), Dan Covey (Lighting) Wendy Parson (wigs & make-up), and musical director William Hubbard.
Frank: I didn’t work with the designers. What Jennifer has brought to the play is a strong understanding of both of these women. The set for Act II does a wonderful job of capturing New York City and its Greenwich Village bohemian feel.
Joel: At the opening of the second act, you removed the fourth wall and invite the audience to sing along on choruses of two songs. What does it add to the play?
Frank: On one level it puts a new dynamic into play as the audience becomes the audience at Cooper Union. On another level, we see Pearl gaining strength and Susannah losing control of Pearl.
Joel: What did you think of the DC audience’s response on opening night?
Frank: The DC audience sang better than any of the other audiences. And they didn’t need much coaching to get it. I loved how it turned the stereotypes some of us have about opening night audiences upside down.
Joel: You are still re-writing the play. What changes in your script were made for the Ford’s Theatre production?
Frank: I snipped out a song/chant that we used in the Cooper Union show. Two pieces were plenty.
Joel: What was the most difficult scene to write (and re-write), and which scene is the most emotional for you to watch?
Frank: The scene that comes after the Cooper Union scene was the most challenging to write. At first, I had too much stuff in it. When I hit upon the minstrel/dancing chicken idea, the scene began to crackle better. The most emotional section for me is the last page when Pearl prepares for, and then sings the African funeral song for her daughter.
Joel: After seeing it on the Ford’s Theatre stage, what is working better than you thought it would, and what did not work as well as you hoped?
Frank: Tonya and Jennifer brought a new wrinkle to the performance of the African song that I love. I also like how the show ends with a blackout. Other productions have done a slow fade, but I think this lighting design/directorial choice is better. If anything is not working as well as we hoped, that’s on me, and I’ll try to do my job better next time.
Joel: We met on opening night at Ford’s Theatre. What were you feeling before you went into the theatre, and how did you feel after the performance?
Frank: I had the normal slight case of nerves before the show. After the show, I was relieved to have heard and seen the audience laugh in the places that we hoped for, and be moved both emotionally and intellectually in the places that we hoped. And the responsiveness of the audience to singing along was an added bonus.
Joel: Where does the show go from here?
Frank: It will be at Inter-Act Theatre in Philadelphia in the spring. Prior to that, it will have productions at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts, and at Penumbra Theatre, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Joel: What advice would you give students who are considering becoming playwrights?
Frank: Write on a regular basis, read a lot of plays, see a lot of plays, persevere. Take an interest in producing your own work in black box spaces, so that you can see your writing on its feet.
Joel: What do you want the audience to take with them when they leave Ford’s Theatre, after seeing Black Pearl Sings!?
Frank: I’ll settle for them taking a copy of the schedule, and encouraging their friends to come see the show.
Black Pearl Sings! continues at Ford’s Theatre through Oct 18th. Click here for details, directions and tickets.