Pearl’s voice precedes and is the story. “Black Pearl Sings,” presented by Black Theater Troupe (BTT) last night was a play with music. More dialogue than song, and no instrumentation other than the human voice, the show banked heavily on Pearl’s (Dzifa Kwawu) spirituals of slavery origin to relay much more than words.
The payoff was huge.
Contemporary playwright Frank Higgins has turned history sideways, presenting an historical event, but imagining it in the feminine instead of the masculine. Inspired by the story of musicologist John Lomax and music virtuoso Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, the production is set in Depression era America and calls on famous personas of the day.
With the edgier female perspective, Higgins has noted his intention to celebrate the matriarchal nature of folklore. Susannah (based on Lomax), a researcher for the Library of Congress, investigates prisons in search of original songs from inmates. She discovers Pearl’s spellbinding voice with a rich musical history locked inside.
Because of her expressive pipes, Kwawu didn’t need to speak or even display Pearl’s feelings, her vocal timbre embodied them. Probably similar to her slave ancestors, Pearl’s anger and resentment in, for instance, “Reap What You Sow” was veiled but palpable via sound. Together, Pearl and Susannah (Shari Watts) lay bare sorrow, too, in both “Keys to the Kingdom” and “6 Feet of Earth.”
Though song carried the emotion, the show’s value certainly appreciated on account of taut dialogue. With no minced words between two fiery ladies, their charged interplay was excellent. Body language and expression were compounded mightily when Pearl set her jaw and fixed a stare with lethal determination.
Higgins has written extremely well in Pearl’s voice, exploring racial distrust, manipulation and exploitation of historical race relations. Pearl’s ultimate discovery of how to remain true to her roots while honestly participating in the present was well articulated.
Susannah’s narrative was a little trickier to convey. Her kind of oppression, as a privileged but disowned family member daring to cross social, gender and racial barriers was less examined. Watts, a highly respected, impressively decorated Valley actress squeezed all the nuance and feminist pioneer spirit she could. Higgins, however, provided the primary heft and meat to Pearl.
Beyond her gender struggle in academia and the workplace, family friction and the associated social expectation seemed at the center of Susannah’s conflict, yet the script allowed for little disclosure or resolve on that front. Pearl herself took several stabs at divining Susannah’s struggles; developing Susannah would perhaps have enriched both characters.
A serviceable set and, especially, beautiful second act costumes added to the storytelling, important in light of a heated conversation about appropriate attire.
If Pearl’s emotive vocal quality was paramount, some less effective physical manifestations her character needed to communicate became secondary. Illness born of savage labor on a Texas prison farm or the crippling weight of a ball and chain were elements still in progress.
At one point, the Black Theatre Troupe audience participated as the 1930s sophisticated NYC crowd in a call and response led by Pearl. “Kum Ba Yah” in the hands of an expert songstress with direct family ties to slavery is a far more moving experience (and a different melodic and rhythmic one) than any sentimental campfire memory of the tune.
The episode was an apt metaphor for Black Theatre Troupe’s entire production. Common understanding about how familiar spirituals figure in American history gained inestimable depth, for which we were all richer when Black Pearl Sings.