Like my mama used to say, just because somebody asks for something doesn’t mean you have to give it. In the case of the Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s exemplary Black Pearl Sings!, it’s a song–a song from Africa that was sung long before slavery times and held like a sacred trust then handed down to the next generation.
African American Gullah woman Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Roz White) is the keeper of this ancient song and when asked by a white musicologist from the Library of Congress, Susannah Mullally (Susan Galbraith), to give it up for posterity–a moment that makes you think hard about white privilege and cultural appropriation–Pearl has a decision to make, give Susannah what she wants or keep the song hidden for the next generation.
This is just one of the many soaring moments of Black Pearl Sings! a play by Frank Higgins that not only touches on the importance of preserving our history, no matter how painful and thorned, but also how just plain hard it is to be a woman, no matter what the color of your skin.
Set in Depression-era America (Patrick W. Lord’s rough-hewn wood plank set evokes lean times), Black Pearl Sings! centers on the challenging friendship between an ambitious musicologist and the gifted singer she discovers in a Texas prison. Susannah, a tough and flinty academic who has that 1930’s film noir-style moxie, goes where no other musicologist will go–the prison system.
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There she finds Pearl, in prison stripes accessorized by a ball and chain, a steely-spined woman who doesn’t seem particularly contrite about her crime–killing a man in a rather picturesque way. Pearl may have sullied herself to rid society of a bad man, but when she opens her mouth to sing acapella, she’s as pure as spring rain.
Her voice is a gift from God, her songs gifts from her people. Pearl and Susannah both want something from each other and Pearl is not sharing her songs because she’s so gosh-darn grateful to white people. She wants money to help find her daughter, who has suddenly disappeared from her home in Houston. Susannah wants to make it big in a man’s world, academia, and a teaching position at Harvard.
To get it, she needs Pearl and her songs to get the attention they deserve by presenting her to New York benefactors.
Black Pearl Sings! is structured like a cat and mouse game between the two women, both of whom cajole, plot and manipulate each other to get what they want. It’s a joy to see White and Galbraith going at it in the snappy, pointed dialogue, such as when Susannah says it’s not a big deal that a New York critic dubs Pearl “Black Pearl.”
“Don’t worry about it, he’s just trying to be clever,” Susannah scoffs. “Oh yeah,” says Pearl. “Then how come you ain’t White Susannah?”
White’s spot-on delivery of Pearl’s no-nonsense, clear-eyed view of the world and of white people makes excellent comic fodder, especially when it comes up against Susannah’s flinty do-gooderism and her self-proclaimed role as the savior of the black voice.
Galbraith is strong as Susannah, an indelible combination of altruism and grit, and as you savor her pithy observations of Greenwich Village bohemian society you also note her wistfulness for wanting to be accepted into the group, not just called upon to provide entertainment.
If the basic story sounds familiar, it is because it is a gender-reversed version of the life of Lead Belly (1889-1949), a blues singer and guitarist who was discovered in the Louisiana State Penitentiary by folklorists Alan and John Lomax. John Lomax trotted Lead Belly out in prison stripes to perform for northern audiences, and Lead Belly resented this exploitation, which led to their collaboration ending acrimoniously.
It takes your breath away to see this scene replicated in Black Pearl Sings! as Susannah asks Pearl to wear prison stripes onstage as a show biz-y way to make a big splash in New York. Again, Susannah doesn’t see it as a big deal; it’s a costume, she wore them once why not wear them again? You just want to clobber her and her insensitivity, but Pearl’s reaction is both devastating and dignified.
Directed with fire by Thomas W. Jones II, Black Pearl Sings! puts you in mind of one of the lyrics from the musical Hamilton: “Who lives, who dies/Who tells our story?”
Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins . Director: Thomas W. Jones II. Featuring: Roz White, Susan Galbraith . Music Director/Arranger: S. Renee Clark. Set & Projections Design: Patrick W. Lord. Lighting Design: Hailey LaRoe. Costumes: Mary Larson and Michael Sharp (with Stephen Hart and Ellen Houseknect). Scenic Painter: Nancy Bundy. Stage Manager: Michael Sharp. Produced by Alliance for New Music-Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.