When she was a little girl, up until about the time she was 10 years old, Roz White visited her great grandmother in South Carolina every summer and saw first-hand the craftsmanship of the Gullah people and the beauty of the land.
Those memories are one of the first things that attracted her to Frank Higgins’ Black Pearl Sings!, a play about a Library of Congress musicologist, Susannah Mullally, searching for the African roots of slave songs, who finds Alberta “Pearl’ Johnson, an incarcerated African-American woman, with a soulful voice and steely spirit.
“It speaks to a part of me that I wanted to stay connected to,” says the Helen Hayes Award winner, who first played Pearl in MetroStage’s 2016 staging and now revisits the role for Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s production, which runs April 17 to May 4. “It’s such a rich history and to be able to preserve a culture through language and songs, it speaks to me and it’s a piece that’s very important to carry on a legacy.”
The musical is loosely based on the true story of Library of Congress folklorists John and Alan Lomax who discovered folk singer Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter while traveling the south looking for the origins of folk songs.
In Higgins’ musical, an imprisoned Pearl is determined to find her daughter no matter what the cost, while Susannah is reaching for a high-powered job at Harvard and is willing to go through great lengths to collect these songs in order to further her career.
Black Pearl Sings!
Produced by Alliance for New Music-Theatre
April 17 – May 4, 2019
Details and tickets
When first offered the part by Carolyn Griffin of MetroStage, White didn’t know much about the musical other than it had been done at Ford’s Theatre in 2009 starring one of her favorite actresses, Tonya Pinkins.
“I hadn’t really thought about it for myself just because of the age she was supposed to be—I hadn’t gotten there yet, but by 2016, it seemed to be the right timing,” White says. “That’s when I first read it and I really enjoyed the relationship between Susannah and Pearl with them both just having a goal and being desperate to reach that goal no matter what and needing each other to make it happen.”
White is excited to play Pearl again and is finding more nuances in her character. She believes the character has grown in her, both in movements and things beyond the page.
“It’s definitely different with Thomas [W. Jones II] as our director. Even though I’ve worked with him for many years, this is the first time we are doing this production together. He always has a different approach to the text and to making everything move on stage, and uses wonderful imagery to tell the story,” White says. “I’ve also had three years to have some more experiences this time and my research has been different, digging deep into the Gullah culture.
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“This has been a great opportunity to ask some questions and get some insights that maybe I didn’t have the first run of this show,” White says. “Those are the types of things we’ve been talking about in the rehearsal process and he challenges us all the time to raise the stakes and make sure they are as high as they can be. We want to make sure we never cheat a moment.”
This time, White is working opposite Susan Galbraith, who plays the LOC musicologist Susannah. The two have paired before for some development projects and White has participated in some talk-backs for Galbraith’s Alliance for New Music-Theatre but they have never performed together.
“I know her as an insightful writer and an inspiring producer who wants to bring content that is new and fresh, and as an actress, I am enjoying watching her discover things as the interplay and rapport we have develops,” White says. “It’s a great experience.”
White invites people to be open minded about the show. Conversations she had with people after the MetroStage run found varied identifications.
“Many champion Pearl. They found her to be triumphant as she maintained her legacy and strength through songs [20 songs are in the play] that have been passed down through the generations and also her willingness to put herself on the line for her daughter,” she says. “But also there are some who champion Susannah. Here’s a woman who wants to be the first female professor at Harvard and make a mark in the world by finding these songs. And then there are those who feel Pearl shouldn’t be so willing to give up these songs that have been passed down to her, and feel a little exploitation may be going on.”
It’s an important show, too, she says, for youngsters to see to understand the genesis of this great and important music.“In doing my own research on the Gullah region I learned that if you are of African America descent, 75 percent of the population came through the Gullah region, and it’s extremely important for people to have a sense of where they come from,” White says. “Also, for students who are not students of color, to respect and appreciate the cultures of those who they are in school with every day. This brings a conversation to the table and gives them a sense of pride and community.”
Because Black Pearl Sings! is such a unique opportunity to share cultural understandings, Alliance for New Music-Theater is planning a tour, blocking time now for shows in China (Shenzhen and Singapore) and is holding the possibility open for more performances in the United States. Roz White, who was in China for Howard University’s production of Dreamgirls in 1991, looks forward to revisiting the country and sharing this personal part of her.
Editor’s note: Susan Galbraith, aside from her stage career, writes for DC Theatre Scene.