Song and authenticity is at the heart of this Adrienne production.
Ownership of culture is at the heart of Frank Higgins’ Black Pearl Sings, a compelling drama in a thoughtful production from InterAct Theater Company. Higgins’ play, inspired by the real-life association between musicologist John Lomax and singer/guitarist Leadbelly, focuses on the relationship between two disparate women in Depression-era America.
Susannah (Catharine K. Slusar), a white woman collecting songs for the Library of Congress, has come to a Texas prison to meet Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (C. Kelly Wright), an African-American woman who committed a gruesome murder. (“I cut off his private parts to make the world a better place,” Pearl explains.) Susannah has been searching for old songs Pearl is reported to know; songs that, if not recorded, are at risk of being lost.
Initially wary, Pearl agrees to sing some of the spirituals passed down from her enslaved ancestors in exchange for what Susannah brings to the table: a pardon from the governor. Susannah plans to show Pearl off to New York academics, hoping the notoriety she’ll get from the stunt will turn into a teaching position at a prestigious institution.
Susannah is likeable but naive, at one point announcing that she is an “expert in oppressed people.” While she’s clearly not a bigot, questions of whether she’s particularly qualified to be a curator of African-American culture lie close to the heart of the play.
With her stiff posture and determined stare, Slusar’s Susannah is outwardly confident, but worried about Pearl’s possible loose-cannon effect on her academic status. Even though Susannah winces at the idea that she’s become Pearl’s “keeper” after her release from prison, she’s visibly irritated when Pearl shows some independence and deviates from the exhibition’s script (the audience of New Yorkers in Rozin’s production are played by us theatergoers, making us unwitting conspirators).
As the women grow closer, Susannah exerts more control over nearly every aspect of Pearl’s life. She instructs her how to behave like a proper lady for the white audience, chooses her clothes and at one point tries to convince Pearl to wear her prison stripes onstage for shock value.
Wright has considerable musical-theater experience belied by the singing style she uses in her performance as Pearl. Sounding like a woman who needs to sing rather than a woman trained to sing, Wright’s vocals are soulful, painful, joyful and spiritual.
The costumes by Loyce Arthur aren’t intended to be historically accurate (they’re a few years ahead of their time), instead chosen to evoke the state of Susannah and Pearl’s relationship. Dressed in gender-neutral prisonwear (complete with an actual ball and chain), Pearl’s prison clothes rob her of identity, and when she is first freed from prison, she wears a plain, matronly dress clearly chosen by Susannah. Only when Pearl begins to assert herself does she appear in a stylish purple dress with white trim that (like Pearl herself) is both bold and appealing.
The costuming choices, sound design and high caliber of acting are reflective of the care given to all elements of Rozin’s meticulously mounted production. In a play that could be one-sided (the role of Pearl clearly being the meatier and flashier of the two leads) this is an evenhanded affair that leaves us questioning whether an outsider can ever “present” another culture accurately and with empathy.
Black Pearl Sings
Through June 27.
2030 Sansom St.
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide