BWW Review: BLACK PEARL SINGS! Returns to D.C.
Funny how a few years can change a play, not because of the play itself, but because of social shifts around it.
Frank Higgins' "Black Pearl Sings!" was conceived as a story about a musicologist who stumbles on the music of a prisoner down South recording authentic old songs for posterity, based somewhat on the story of John Lomax and Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter.
It played Ford's Theater a decade ago and then at Metro Stage three years ago - in a production where Roz White also starred as the lead, as Alberta Johnson, whose friends call her Pearl, a convict who is chosen for her good voice in meeting with the musicologist.
Then, it might have seemed a union of equal benefit - Pearl would be paroled, and might find a way to find a daughter, while the musicologist would discover historic songs that might have otherwise been forever lost to history and boost her career accordingly.
Maybe it's social awakening in the intervening years - or perhaps the direction of Thomas W. Jones II in a Alliance for New Music-Theatre production playing at the Universalist National Memorial - but things seem a little more tilted in Pearl's favor this time around.
Why is she only being offered a cigarette, or a quarter for a song? If she has something of value, shouldn't she be paid accordingly?
Isn't the musicologist just a little too enamored with the songs of slavery? And where does she get off suggesting Pearl wear prison stripes for a Carnegie-sponsored concert in New York, just to play up some white audience's image of black felons?
While the song collecting of Lomax and others may have once been seen as a kind of laudable cultural preservation, now it seems more like appropriation, with the "discoverer" the one likely to reap the monetary benefits.
That feeling may be enhanced by the stellar performance of White, a D.C. native and Howard grad who has worked with singers including Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Yolanda Adams, Michael Jackson and Florence + the Machine and by all accounts tore down the house last year as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Mosaic's "Marie and Rosetta."
White knows Pearl inside and out by now and is aware of both her toughness and vulnerabilities; she's equally adept at belting out a bone-rattling showstopper or adding the subtle inflection of an raised eyebrow.
It's more of a struggle for Susan Galbraith, the artistic director of the Alliance for New Music-Theatre who takes up the role of the musicologist. In an early performance, she didn't have mastery of the lines, was no match in singing Irish ballads and didn't seem suited to learning a hip-shake dance (certainly not atop a chair anyway).
Also, her argumentative tone underscored how much of the play is devoted to conflict between the two characters. Instead of deciding to work together toward a common goal, they always seem to find something to argue about - what songs to sing, what to ad lib (and what is the musicologist doing on stage with Pearl in the first place?).
Higgins covers a lot of ground in his play but two hours is a long time to watch two women bicker, especially when there's so much great music Pearl could be spending her time singing. Until late in the show, we hear very few complete songs, though there are many snippets of well chosen tunes that have become popular through cover versions in the past half century, from Vera Hall's "Trouble So Hard" to Blue Lu Parker's "Don't You Feel My Leg."
It's not until she gets to her New York showcase that she gets to sing more complete songs, to which the audience sings along. Soon enough everyone is literally all singing "Kum By Yah," informed by the the Gullah language of African-Americans of the South Carolina islands. It is those islands, specifically Hilton Head, from which Pearl hails, that creates another cultural complexity.
The current production is part of a project the Allianc for New Music - Theatre is having with both the Library of Congress - the employer once of John Lomax and, in the show, of the fictional musicologist - and the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, from which White is a grad, and whose students have been studying the history of Gullah people as part of their studies. Their posters adorn the walls leading into the theater space.
Using the space usually occupied by Spooky Action Theatre, the set by Patrick W. Lord has a rough hewn look that works for depicting an office at the prison and, in act two, slides back to make for a credibly Bohemian apartment in Greenwich Village.
Lighting designer Hailey LaRue shines the spotlight when it's time for the showcase, where the costumes by Mary Larson & Michael Sharp begin to shine. It did seem like the ball and chain carried by Pearl in the first act seemed a little too light to be functional, but the voice she carried was authentic enough to cover for any number of lapses.
Running time: Two hours, with one 15 minute intermission.
Photo credit: Susan Galbraith and Roz White in "Black Pearl Sings!" Photo by Thom Goertel.
"Black Pearl Sings!" by the Alliance for New Music-Theatre continues through May 4 at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St NW. Information online.