The newest play at the Lyceum Theatre presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre is more play than musical, but there is plenty of music featured in the story. Written by Frank Higgins and directed by Thomas W. Jones II, the play concerns the imprisonment of a black woman, Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, and her connection with a white woman, Susannah Mullally, who is involved in the collection of music for the Library of Congress. Jones is returning to the SD Rep, having directed previous plays for SD Rep and he is currently an Artistic Associate at MetroStage. He is a distinguished director and actor and has received 42 Helen Hayes Award nominations, winning 12 of the awards.
Higgins inspiration for his play comes from the real life story of musicologist John Lomax and his travels through the South to work-farms and penitentiaries collecting work songs, blues, ballads and folk songs. He is credited with helping discover Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, in the 1930’s, and helping Lead Belly when he was released from prison and obtained a recording contract and become one of the leading folk and blues artists of the time.
In “Black Pearl Sings!”, the story involves a similar situation, this time women taking center stage. Pearl has been in prison, in southeast Texas in the 1930’s, for 10 years for killing a man. She has a daughter, who is now 22, and she is the daughter of former slaves who lived off the island of South Carolina. Susannah has received a grant from the Library of Congress to collect as many traditional, authentic songs that are disappearing from the history of the United States as different cultural and racial groups get older. She has traveled to this Texas prison to speak with and record inmates who might remember songs of their elders. This brings her to hear Pearl who she hears singing as she returns from work on the chain gang.
Playing the role of Susannah is Allison Spratt Pearce, returning to the SD Rep. Pearce has Broadway and Off Broadway credits as well as regional performances. She plays the feisty Susannah with ease and enthusiasm. She doesn’t have as many songs to sing as Pearl, but when she does sings, we hear a beautiful voice, especially on the Irish ballad, “Six Feet of Earth”. As the Library of Congress collector, Susannah sees her job as extremely important as she is trying to save a part of our musical history that is slowly disappearing, “When a person dies a library is lost”.
Playing Pearl is award winning Minka Wiltz. Wiltz has been singing for 32 years and acting for 14 years. She has numerous performances on Atlanta stages and this is her first production at SD Rep. Wiltz brings to the stage a powerful singing voice and stage presence. She makes Pearl “come to real life” on stage. Her handling of the spirituals “Troubles so Hard” and “Reap what you Sow” are moving, as is “No More Auction Block for Me”. She is also a worthy adversary for Susannah as they are involved in a number of energetic discussions about many issues. Pearl is concerned with finding her daughter, who she thinks lives in Houston, who she has not seen in a long time. One hot topic being Pearls interest in the political unions she runs into once she is out of prison and on the streets of New York. The time period for the play is the early 30’s when women’s rights, worker’s rights, people’s rights are still struggling with social issues most are familiar with from our nation’s history. Wiltz, as Pearl, shows a wide range of singing styles, such as the sexy “Don’t You Feel My Leg”, she sings from the Cotton Club after meeting Cab Callaway. She also sings Susannah a song she remembers from her time as a young girl on the island when she heard fruit vendors selling blackberries. Never have blackberries seemed as sexy as in the vendors Blackberry song.
This is a play that touches on a variety of topics. Pearl struggles with making money, finding her daughter, and making a contribution to society. Pearl keeps some things from Susannah, such as her superstitions and ties with voodoo and songs she has learned from her grandmother which were brought over from Africa. She beautifully sings one of these songs at the end of the play.
Some wonderful “zingers” are featured in the play. Pearl says to Susannah, right after they first meet, when discussing why Susannah is doing what she has set out to accomplish and her fight to finally teach at Harvard, “A woman who wants to be equal to a man has no ambition”. Pearl says, when discussing her outlook on life, “There are two kinds of folks in the world, folks who look to the future and everybody else” and “Dumb comes in all colors”. Susannah get her two cents in when she speaks about the disparity in society, “Six feet of earth will make us all one size”.
Each actress sings most of the songs acapella, but there is occasional background music to aide with the mood, provided by Music Director S. Renee Clark. The set changes from the bleak offices of a prison in Act I to an apartment in New York City and moving columns give a variety of set appearances. The columns open to mirrored set designs for Pearl’s final number. The set designer for SD Rep production is Sean Fanning. Outfitting the actresses in 1930’s costumes and prison wear was Costume Designer Mary Larson. Rounding out the production team is Lighting Designer Sherrice Mojgani, and Sound Designer Matt Lescault-Wood. Designing the various video projections of scenes from the 1930’s and plantation life, which appear on the walls of the prison office and the apartment, was Victoria Petrovich.
“Black Pearl Sings!” is a chance to see talented actresses act and sing, learn about a time period and music style many do not know about and take part in the musical/play. At several different points in the play, we become the audience of the 1930’s and join in singing parts of Pearl’s songs. For a lot of the audience, memories come back to past times around the campfire or at camp as Pearl sings “Kum Ba Ya”.
“Black Pearl Sings!” will continue at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego until December 17th. Tickets can be purchased by calling 619-544-1000 or go to www.sdrep.org. Next up on the Lyceum Stage is Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin for a strictly limited Holiday engagement, December 20 – January 7. Next on stage for the theatre world is “Vietgone” beginning on January 25th.