Play: “Black Pearl Sings!”
Group: The Black Rep
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: Wednesdays-Sundays through May 15
Story: It’s 1935 and Susannah Mulally travels the country in search of authentic folk songs. She’s employed by the Library of Congress, and her quest is to find and record old tunes brought to America from distant shores and kept alive through generations in the oral tradition of various cultures. She’s especially searching for African songs passed down through the centuries by slaves and now by their descendants, which she believes is her ticket to a professorship at Harvard.
At a Texas prison farm she interviews a number of convicts, none of whom has what she needs except one: Alberta “Pearl” Thomas, a middle-age black woman who is 12 years into a life sentence for murder. When Susannah recognizes the value of Pearl’s musical memories, the latter extracts a price of her own: She wants to leave prison to find her long-lost daughter, now about 20 years old. As Susannah records various tunes sung by Pearl, she manages to arrange a concert by the two of them at Cooper Union Great Hall in New York City, while also drawing closer to locating Pearl’s daughter Uniqua for a hoped-for reunion of mother and daughter.
Highlights: Playwright Frank Higgins based his two-act drama on musicologist John Lomax’s discovery of blues singer Huddie “Leadbelly” Leadbetter at a Texas prison farm in the 1930s while the former was collecting and recording folk songs from the Southwest. Since its original production in 2007 the play been performed in several cities and now makes its local premiere in a Black Rep production directed by Andrea Frye and starring acclaimed jazz and blues vocalist Denise Thimes and Shanara Gabrielle, a fine singer in her own right.
Other Info: Higgins made his characters female because he thought it more likely that songs would be passed down through generations “in a matriarchal situation.” While there is minimal musical accompaniment in the show, simply Gabrielle strumming a recorder, both actresses have beautiful voices that shine in a cappella presentations. Additionally, Thimes injects her tunes with a dramatic force that weaves a story beyond the mere recitation of lyrics. A personal tragedy, the murder of one of her sisters earlier this year, underscores her deeply felt portrayal.
Gabrielle and Thimes finely delineate both the differences and similarities in their characters. While one has alienated herself from her wealthy parents and strives to succeed in a male-oriented society, the other makes an oblique reference to the man she killed (prompted by a possible rape of her daughter by Pearl’s second husband) and the circumstances that have exiled her to prison.
Still, under Frye’s patient and careful direction, there is plenty of humor in Higgins’ script that Thimes in particular captures and brings forth to lighten the serious subject matter. Pearl’s explanation of how “Little Sally Walker” can be sung sensually by an adult, and how she teaches Susannah to shake her hips in response to the tune, is especially amusing. Similarly, she coaxes the audience into providing the refrain for another song with delightful results.
Yet, even with fine performances and solid material, the Black Rep production doesn’t totally resonate for whatever reason, despite amusing and ironic references to novelist/folklorist Zora Neale Hurston and the golf resort possibilities for South Carolina’s remote Hilton Head Island.
Christopher Pickart’s set design doubles as the prison warden’s office in Act I, comprised of utilitarian furniture and a blue background screen, and the well-appointed Greenwich Village apartment of a friend of Susannah’s in Act II when the two women prepare for their performances in New York. Sean Savoie’s lighting is most noteworthy in a scene where Pearl sings a humorous ditty about zombies, while Heather Beal’s choreography is highlighted in the ‘shaking hips’ bit. Felia Davenport’s costumes range from Pearl’s prison garb and Susannah’s professional suits to the evening gowns worn by the ladies for their concert, while musical director Charles Creath and sound designer Robin Weatherall neatly contribute to the presentation of songs.
While not always affecting, “Black Pearl Sings!” does provide an opportunity to see two fine actresses and singers display their talents with an interesting story.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.