by Frank Higgins
Directed by Kate Alexander
Starring Alice M. Gatling & Forrest Richards
Florida Studio Theatre's Keating Mainstage
1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, 941-366-9000
April 8 through May 30, '09

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Applause for the women!  Alice M. Gatling totally disappears into her role as Alberta "Pearl" Johnson, serving prison time in Texas for murdering a man who assaulted her daughter.  As academic Susannah Mullally, Forrest Richards, who took up her part only days before the preview performance, is absolutely natural as a collector and recorder of Negro music who can absorb as well as appreciate it. Kate Alexander directs both with understanding of the characters and, despite the playwright's bias, an even hand in bringing forth the best in each.  Each woman, at their meeting, is immediately defined by Marcella Beckwith's costumes-the dirty, shapeless, dated rags from socks to bandana on leg-chained Pearl; the light, sensible but not unstylish suit with shoes all as blond as Susannah.

It is 1935. Susannah is searching for authentic African-American music to record as a Library of Congress project and to advance her career. Because a previous significant contribution of hers was appropriated by a Harvard professor, with miniscule recognition despite their having shared a relationship, she is out to best him as well. Her major goal is a position at Harvard; the means, to discover music--even a single song she can present--brought to America by slaves and preserved by them for themselves. Pearl, known for her singing during ten years of incarceration, appears to be a conduit to that cultural find. And doesn't the uneducated but naturally perceptive, sly Pearl get the picture! Neither bits of money nor treats to eat will satisfy her. If Susannah wants more songs, she must help get Pearl paroled and to locate her daughter. In between recordings of Pearl's songs, she works on a chain gang while Susannah works on the governor and to find 22-year-old Uniqua. Though the women become friends of sorts, Susannah obviously has to shake off prejudices as Pearl does suspicions and one-track ambition. After her release, Susannah convinces Pearl to go with her to New York to perform for leftist and grant-giving audiences, thus raising money needed to get to Uniqua while advancing Susannah's scholarly status.

The play nearly gets sidetracked as Pearl delves into religious matters, Voodoo, and the struggles of her unionist audiences or when she questions the talent of Harlem performers and the beneficence of philanthropist Carnegie. When Pearl rebels against wearing stripes to enhance her image as victim in a projected tour to sing at universities, she's assured it'll be completely to finance her reunion with family. Harvard is all the "payment" Susannah wants.  She will eventually find that those who are much exploited learn how to exploit.

As Black Pearl Sings! makes a case for a people's music embodying their soul, so Gatling's impressive singing solidifies Pearl's place in her people's culture. Her voice  resonates in a mix of familiar folk songs (at least one in a new context) and unfamiliar melodies or lyrics.  With facility she leads the audience into "call and response." When Pearl teaches, Richards' Susannah quickly grasps what's uncommon and performs enthusiastically, mostly at Pearl's side.  It is a pleasure to hear them as well as some of African-American musical history. Unfortunately, it is with history that the play takes not-for-the-better turns.

Playwright Frank Higgins has acknowledged basing his play on a "true story"-that of singer and instrumentalist Lead Belly, who grew up in Texas and by age 12 played a mean string guitar. He worked on a chain gang and was imprisoned for killings more than once. He was redeemed by musicologist John Lomax, traveling through the south with his son Alan, recording for the Library of Congress, mainly folk songs and relevant oral history. They promoted Lead Belly in New York as well as through national in-person and broadcast performances and by print publications--most importantly, collections. Between fallings-out, Lead Belly went on a short college lecture tour they had arranged; it ended at Harvard. (Wikipedia has a fine synopsis of details.) It's clear that Higgins transferred Lead Belly's story to Pearl. Susannah's character incorporates the Lomaxes, especially Lead Belly's discoverer, John, but initially she seems more exploiting and racially condescending. Later, she's Pearl's happy conspirator in ball busting. Unlike Lead Belly, Pearl murdered once, for an understandable reason, whereas he killed more men on more occasions and was known for his violent temper. Higgins makes Pearl a cut, however emasculating, above her source; Susannah, a touch below. The problem is not that Higgins has fictionalized his source material, which he has every right to do. But he stacks the deck against the white woman so as to excuse or justify the black one's final decision, that seems, at least on the surface, to reflect ingratitude and selfishness. By asserting complete ownership and control of her cultural knowledge, Pearl also commits to repeating Susannah's treatment by her professor.

On two counts Higgins' play flies in the face of history. For one, he has Pearl coming to a recording session from a chain gang and with leeches on her feet. Though women prisoners in the south up to the mid-20th century endured frightful horrors, working on chain gangs was not one of them. (Chain gangs were revived only in 2003 by still controversial Sheriff Arpaco of Phoenix, AZ, who boasted to the media of creating the first female one ever.)  By citing or showing a true horrible condition Pearl would have had to endure, Higgins could have replaced melodrama with unimpeachable impact.  

Second historical anachronism: Susannah's Harvard goal. Women of her time not only were not on the faculty, they did not even lecture at Harvard.  Nor could women formally study there! They matriculated at Radcliffe College, where male Harvard professors taught them. (Despite the important early 20th century mapping and classification of stars performed by women in the Harvard College Observatory, they were considered mere nominally paid assistants, not staff, and not students unless getting degrees from other colleges.) The section on Radcliffe history in the catalog of the college (now a Research Institute) reveals Harvard first let Radcliffe women into its classes in 1943, into the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences or Radcliffe Graduate School classes taught by women in 1963.  So Susannah Mullally would have been having a pipe dream of major proportions to expect her musicology finds to get her into Harvard's rarified atmosphere, much less on a par with or exceeding the man who "did her wrong." For me, a retired woman academic, Higgins' use of the Harvard goal for Susannah proved an early, formidable distraction. In fact it exceeded the improbability of her having in the '30s a significant Library of Congress grant that allowed her on her own to be a principal investigator of a research project. In prisons and in Texas! Then, there's the question of her simply being with a convicted murderer yet with no guard hovering. Having done academic advisement as a baccalaureate program director in minimal to maximum security state prisons in the 1980s, I was quite distracted by the unrealistic situation in Higgins' supposedly realistic play.  

I do believe that, for the general public, the drama's human interest as a story largely mitigates its credibility problems. They are also counterbalanced by Florida Studio Theatre's production with two powerful singer-actresses and effective sound and lighting. Roman Tatarowicz's excellent half-stage of worn planks complemented by an adjoining half of projections of people and life behind bars let Black Pearl's milieu and actions dominate, as the title suggests, with lyrical intensity.

Production Stage Manager: Dean Curosmith.  Time: 1 hr., 55 min. w/12 min. intermission.

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