Black Pearl Sings! is a powerful, entertaining story of two women from vastly different walks who have life-changing interactions that revolve around snippets of historical music.
The play was inspired by the efforts of ethno-musicologists and cultural folklorists, specifically John Lomax, who ventured into rural backwoods to find and record old folk songs before they disappeared. When musicologist Susannah Mullally makes her way to the prison to hear slavery-influenced chain gang songs, Pearl grabs the opportunity and her soulful melodies get attention. Once she’s in the professor’s office, she maneuvers to get what she wants more than life itself – to find her missing daughter, and she sings like the caged bird that she is to get it.
MetroStage staple Roz White inhabits the role of Alberta “Pearl” Johnson like it was created for her. Her vocalizations fit beautifully, and inflections she has honed in previous productions ratchet up to a masterful level here. White skillfully portrays how Pearl is girded in strength for survival. The years of hurt and disappointment have caused her to trust nothing and no one, and the pain oozes like a contained seething inner sore that could erupt at any time. Her only salve and saving grace is the abiding hope that she will see her daughter again.
Teresa Castracane as musicologist Susannah Mullally hits her mark from the onset with a crisp straight-edged approach to her tasks. She initially regards Pearl as a convenient step to achieve academic prominence. Little does she know the extent of the character she’s got to reckon with first. The more she tries to cajole bits of music out of Pearl with token payments and promises of pardon, the more Peal resists to get what she wants. Even when Pearl gets Susannah in a headlock with a knife at her throat, the professor stays strong, nimble and ready to bargain for what she wants without skipping a beat or uttering a false note. Before they know it, the characters are on a path learning to trust again in midst of sorrow, degradation and pain.
With each encounter, the characters slowly peel back self-protective layers exposing their vulnerabilities, dreams and yearnings to themselves and to each other. Something as simple as a Little Sally Walker nursery rhyme in Pearl’s hands (and hips) becomes a whole new entryway for Susannah to move through the world. As a noted musicologist who’s been passed over for professional advancement, her hard-earned work was even usurped by a male upstart colleague, she’s got an ax to grind, a bone to pick and a chip on her shoulder. Still, those issues pale when faced with the horrific situations that Pearl has confronted resulting in her chains. Through it all, the characters size each other up to see how they can get what they want.
Director Sandra L. Holloway assures a sense of unity to the duo. You can feel the connection between the characters slowly knock through the barriers of mistrust as they develop insight and vision. Guided by Holloway, both White and Castracane find and excavate the tender spots in their characters. White has a tougher dig considering the brutality her character has dealt with. They come through for and with each other as the scenes unfold.
The second act is particularly revealing as Pearl comes to terms with the conditions of her “release.” Complying with Susannah is the only possible way to accomplish her goal—trying to unite with her daughter who has lived a motherless rag-muffin existence with Pearl’s incarceration. Each scene shows the progression of the characters’ relationship enabling Pearl to go from clearing leech infested swampland in the deep south Texas to charming social conscious audiences with her gospel-infused songs in New York City, all in the effort to find her daughter.
The ever talented musical director William Hubbard brings his rich spiritual legacy to the scenes, helping to blend the musical artistry into the characters’ lives. In an interview, White notes that Hubbard “understands what makes a musical moment work and is in tune to the way history affects the turn of a note or phrase. Castracane agrees and observes he “finds the heart of a song.” Hubbards’ creative touch can be heard, even felt, throughout the tonality, rhythm, ebb and flow of the music.
And then there are the songs complete with a Song List to savor in reflection. Roz White’s vocals caress the tender notes, then plunge us through the Middle Passage and back again with a holler, a moan, and trembling lyrics of tribulation and oppression. White is blessed with a voice that resonates and captures the soul of the music with a strong gospel uplift.
The song selections and interludes by sound designer Gordon Nimmo-Smith reflect the influence of the “field-holler” on early rustic moaning songs that were rooted in African rhythms. Pearl’s character even beautifully demonstrates the off-beat syncopated clapping of the Carolina Gullah people with striking authenticity. Susannah also reveals the through line melody and lyrics that connect Appalachian songs to their Irish and Celtic roots in a beautiful rendition of a love ballad.
The set is a back wall with a framed center door that converts beautifully into a back wall of a comfortable Greenwich Village apartment, kudos to set designers Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan.
Black Pearl Sings!
closes May 20, 2016
Details and tickets
Costuming (Janine Sunday) presents Pearl in prison garb with both horizontal and vertical stripes. The end of the first act is particularly effective when the lights reflect the same vertical stripe pattern as the prison garb in a mesmerizing fade. Lighting designer Alexander Keen captures the emotional passages with subdued hues and then splashes the stage with joyful light when the two stand before the sophisticated audiences in the second act.
The script contains references to vision, how swamp land can be transformed into what is now a world class golf resort. In like manner, the characters have to see themselves projected into the future of who they want to be.
Having a vision takes courage and this production is needed now more than ever – Black Pearl Sings! grapples with racial/cultural divides that affect us now on personal and social levels. Even if you caught a previous production, this one is worth a return visit in the light of national realities that have changed and shifted the country in the last seven years. As a nation we are all in a different place since the Charleston Massacre, incendiary law enforcement assaults, and yes, even the current national elections.
The characters’ questions and the resulting dialog bring hushed thoughts into the light of day. They square off threatening each other with distrust, then their appreciation of deeply rooted music connects and binds them as much as it can. While even music can only go so far, it’s a start to keep us talking and sharing about difficult topics. Witnessing the characters’ journeys in Black Pearl Sings! helps us engage with each other to perhaps inch along forward …together.
Black Pearl Sings! written by Frank Higgins . Directed by Sandra L. Holloway . Music Director: William Hubbard . Set Design: Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan . Costume design: Janine Sunday . Lighting: Alexander Keen . Sound design Gordon Nimmo- Smith . Production Stage Manager: David Elias . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.