Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins, at Alliance for New Music-Theatre, is an absorbing production with an uplifting message. This witty play was successfully produced here in 2016 at MetroStage, starring the great Roz White. In this version, White vividly re-interprets her role as gifted singer Alberta “Pearl” Johnson. Alliance Artistic Director Susan Galbraith is briskly compelling as Susannah Mullaly, the Library of Congress musicologist who befriends her. It is the Depression-era story of two women whose shared love for music brings them together despite differences in race, backgrounds, and circumstances.
The play is very loosely based on the life of Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (1889-1949) who was discovered in Louisiana State Penitentiary by folklorists John and Alan Lomax. Lead Belly, known as “the King of the Twelve-String Guitar” was an acclaimed folk singer and musician. The Gullah culture, extending largely from the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, is one of the most authentic African-American traditions we have. The remarkable Gullah music and language still survive today, even as their land is threatened by developers. Many noted personalities, from Michelle Obama to Roz White to Michael Jordan, share Gullah heritage.
When we first see Pearl, she is incarcerated in a Texas jail. Yet her talent and queenly demeanor mark her out as exceptional. The beauty of White’s voice, as she sings “Little Sally Walker,” “Blackberries,” and “Kum Ba Yah” is undeniable. Her singing becomes a metaphor for the magnetism of Pearl herself, a woman whose talent shines like a diamond amid the painful realities of her life.
At first, Pearl is suspicious of Susannah. But she has one driving need: to find the daughter she loves who has disappeared. Susannah agrees to help her with this project. For her part, Susannah hopes her connection to Pearl will lead to a prestigious appointment at Harvard. Susannah’s passion is intellectual. She is at odds with her parents; we don’t know why. She lives comfortably in the West Village, while Pearl’s financial situation is precarious. Some might notice a whiff of cultural appropriation here. But the depth of the women’s friendship makes that observation less certain.
The journey the two women make has many aspects: affection, trauma, distance, art, and healing. In a way, it symbolizes the paradoxical nature of art itself; the purity of music contrasted with the muddling, often confusing nature of our daily lives.
Director Thomas W. Jones II’s previous production of Black Pearl Sings! won much praise in San Diego last year. Jones, along with his two actresses, has ensured that every moment is truthful and fully explored. The music, directed and arranged by S. Renee Clark, is extraordinary. The set is stylish, and the projections are beautifully artistic. Both are by Patrick W. Lord. Costumes (by Mary Larson and Michael Sharp) and lighting (by Hailey LaRoe) are well-designed and attractive.
Black Pearl Sings! is part of a larger project of Alliance for New Music-Theatre, the Library of Congress, and the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. For the spring semester of 2019, Duke Ellington students are using Black Pearl Sings! as a springboard for investigation into the culture of the Gullah people, an important, historically unbroken African-American community.
Don’t miss Black Pearl Sings! It is a memorable performance, replete with history and magic.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Black Pearl Sings! plays through May 4, 2019, at Alliance for New Music-Theatre performing at the Universalist National Memorial Church in the Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased online.