The issues of race, gender and cultural appropriation are just three of the compelling topics at the heart of Alliance for New Music- Theatre’s “Black Pearl Sings” onstage through May 5 at Spooky Action Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Written by Kansas City playwright Frank Higgins, and ably directed by Thomas W. Jones II, the play is based loosely on the discovery of legendary folk-singer/guitarist Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter in a Louisiana prison by folklorist John Lomax and their subsequent musical partnership.
In this two-hour production, two talented women play the roles—Roz White as Pearl and Susan Galbraith as Susannah—and the audience is treated to a compelling look at the challenging friendship that grows between a white, ambitious musicologist and a gifted black singer serving a 10-year prison sentence for murder.
On the surface, we see a symbiotic dance between the two, where race, gender, privilege and self-interest constantly drives the interactions between the two females. At the core, however, is something deeper and even more complex. Who gets to keep and tell one people’s story? In this case, should a song be passed down by others for posterity or should it be passed on to the female lineage from which it came, allowing the women in that lineage to tell and preserve their own history?
The play opens at a Texas prison where a woman singing a gospel song and dressed in prison stripes comes onstage hauling a ball and chain. Inside a small room, another woman has been interviewing female singers about the southern songs that have been passed down in their family. She is searching for the origins of indigenous folk music and wants to record these songs on vinyl for the Library of Congress.
When the musicologist, Susannah, hears the voice of Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, she brings her in to pick her brain for her knowledge of Negro folk songs, particularly ones that may have been sung by slaves on ships coming from Africa. This sets up the initially tenuous relationship where the audience will learn that it is not only Susannah who is seeking something. Pearl is as well, and each woman must work with the other to get their needs met.
As Pearl, White plays the role with a spirited and steely conviction, having played the role in 2016 at Alexandria, VA’s MetroStage. It helps that she hails from a coastal South Carolina community, and her ancestry stems from the Gullah Island culture, on which the play draws on the historical context and culture, specifically Hilton Head. The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and culture heritage than any other African American community in the U.S., even as developers threaten it.
The rub in the play comes from the fact that Susannah is not only adamant about collecting songs and recording them for prosperity (i.e. ”When a person dies, a library is lost”), she also is motivated by her research possibly securing her a job at Harvard. In the past, sexism has thwarted her goal, with the prestigious jobs being awarded to men. A fearless academic, she is unafraid of mining the prison system for songs to fulfill her dream.
However, when she wants to offer Pearl a mere cigarette or 50 cents for a song, Pearl proves to be nobody’s fool. She wants enough money so that she can search for her 22-year-old daughter in Houston who she has not seen in years.
As the women become closer, talk of a possible pardon by the governor and a recording contract where Pearl can earn money begins to show promise, and Pearl slowly begins to share her repertoire. The audience is treated to 19 songs, including a lovely Irish folk sung, “Six Feet of Earth,” sang by Galbraith, who also plays a dulcimer.
It is White’s powerhouse deliveries, however, that steal the show as she nails each song with grit and sass. White is particularly effective in a hilarious moment when she shows Susannah how to sing and dance a sensual and bluesy version of the child’s song, “Little Sally Walker.” Other outstanding songs include “Troubles So Hard,’ “Reap What You Sow,” “Lord Remember Me,” and “Many Thousand Gone.”
The latter allows the audience to join in for a spontaneous three-minute interactive moment as a thumping beat rises in the theater. Later, White’s soulful rendering of “Don’t You Feel My Leg” also was a crowd pleaser with its bawdy insinuations.
Susannah’s tenacity does help Pearl win a pardon, and the two take off for New York on a tour that reveals much about the women in terms of their differences and how both must continually give and take to overcome some major challenges. This includes a condescending moment when Susannah thinks it’s a great idea to have Pearl sing in a prison uniform before a well-heeled audience. In another, Pearl takes offense when a critic calls her “Black Pearl,” noting that Susannah is not called “White Susannah.”
As the tour progresses and Susannah looks for more songs to add to the performances, Susannah asks Pearl again to try to recollect a song that her mother or grandmother may have passed down from her ancestors on a slave ship so that it can be recorded and not lost. It is then that Pearl must decide whether she will reveal the one song that she has withheld. Learning that her daughter has tragically died, leaving a daughter, it is a powerful moment when Pearl secretly sings a powerful African song, the hypnotic beats of African drums pounding in the background. It is her own granddaughter, she decides, who will receive the song to pass down to others in their bloodline.
Higgins said that he decided to write the play with women in the role “because I find them more interesting.” The contrast between the two with their different backgrounds and experiences certainly is engaging, but the issues that are introduced are as relevant today as during the play’s Depression-era setting.