Directed by Steve Scott
At Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Two strong women struggle for success through their common bond – music
Playwright Frank Higgins based Black Pearl Sings on the true historical working together of ethnomucicalcologist John Avery Lomax (1867-1948) and guitarist Huddie “Lead Belly” Leadbetter (1888-1949). Lomax was searching and recording original rural ethnic music that included country, bluegrass, Black spirituals, work songs as well as slave songs. Lomax was commissioned by the Library of Congress to record these unique songs that he found on farms, churches, prisons and jute-joints through the rural Southern states.
Higgins decided to expand his story to include women’s struggle in the 1930’s that found the White Ivy League rich woman – Susannah Mullally (Susie McMonagle) – an aggressive ethnomusicologist at a Texas prison interviewing Black women with strong singing voices as she searches for slave and pre-slave songs to be recorded. She encounters the rich-voiced but hostile Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (the fabulous E. Faye Butler). Each women has an agenda–Susannah in finding old ethnic songs to record and Pearl focusing on finding her lost 22 year old daughter.
The early scenes that depict the determination and strength of each women are marvelously played out as each establishes their own rules for the relationship. Pearl will only sing unheard slave and work songs if Susannah works to find Pearl’s daughter. The two eventually unite to allow each to become “successful” on each’s terms. Susannah’s plan includes getting Pearl a parole and taking her to NYC to get Pearl “discovered” during the Harlem Reminiscence in the early 1930’s . Pearl realizes that fame and money will allow her the means to find her lost daughter plus she loves to sing.
Black Pearl Sings is a drama with songs, sung as a cappella renditions of rare American folk songs magnificently sung by Susie McMonagle and the golden-voiced E. Faye Butler. Music here is a bonding metaphor for two striking women determined to control their lives on their own terms. The play also reaffirms the grand power of art (music here) to stimulate the human spirit during bleak economic times. The inspiration quality of music to soothe folks during turbulent times is captured effectively in Black Pearl Sings. We witness the special bond of respect that these two women experience when united by a common bond and noble purpose. They are survivors determined to leave their mark on the world.
I can’t remember when I’ve seen a finer two-handed that E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle performed and Steve Scott directed. The work is filled with heart, truth and emotional fuel nicely expressed with sharp dialogue and richly underscored by emotionally deep a cappella singing by McMonagle and Butler. This is a gem of a play that will renew your faith in humanity.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: January 21, 2012
For more info about Black Pearl Sings, go to theatreinchicago.com
At Northlight Theatre. 9501 N. Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL, www.northlight.org, tickets $25 – $60, Tuesday thru Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturdays at 8 pm,undays at 7 pm, matinees on Wednesdays at 1 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through February 19, 2012