In the 1930s, musicologist John Lomax, working on behalf of the Library of Congress, traveled throughout rural America — and especially its prisons — in search of authentic American folk songs. In 1933, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Lomax recorded the work songs, ballads and blues of a twelve-string guitarist and singer named Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. The following year Lead Belly was paroled from prison. In time he would be recognized as a nationally known performer. From this scenario, playwright Frank Higgins has fashioned a two-character play with music. Written in 2006, Black Pearl Sings! morphs Lomax and Lead Belly into the fictional Susannah Mullally and Alberta "Pearl" Johnson.
Susannah is the iconoclastic pariah in a wealthy family. Determined to make her own way in a man's world, she believes that discovering a major American folk song that reaches back to Africa might land her a position amid the male enclave at Harvard. Alberta's ambitions, like her nature, are much more basic. She simply wants out of prison so she can pursue her missing daughter. The play is a seesaw battle for control between these two in a world where nothing is quite as it seems. Susannah is not quite so altruistic as she would have us believe, nor is Alberta so hard-bitten and ferocious as she initially appears.
By evening's end, Black Pearl Sings! has trotted out a few too many straw dogs that exist simply to be blown down. But it's a rare theatergoer who attends this play for the plot. You come for the music. You come for an evening of a cappella singing, and there's lots of it. And not just mournful blues. Numbers like "Pay Me My Money Down" will keep your toes tapping. Director Andrea Frye manages to fill the Grandel stage not solely with two characters, but also with two voices. Although Shanara Gabrielle's Susannah more than holds her own, however, this is clearly Denise Thimes' evening. This Pearl is a stage filler, to be sure.
After Alberta makes her concert debut in New York City, a reviewer describes her as "a miracle of near biblical proportions." That comes close to describing Thimes. When she plants her feet on the stage and stares you down, you'd best go around her. She is a force. But in this production, Thimes' very presence adds an unplanned-for yet haunting resonance. Because her 39-year-old sister Patrice was senselessly killed by a stray bullet last month, Thimes carries a grief even weightier than the ball-and-chain that clasps her ankle. "Seems like everybody in this whole wide world is down on me," Alberta moans, and the words assume an added meaning. "You must know something about pain," Susannah suggests, and we know that Alberta does. If Thimes can do no wrong on this stage; it's at least partly because we in the auditorium will her to do no wrong. The rapport between actor and audience is palpable. For this one production, Black Pearl Sings! becomes theater of catharsis.