Black Pearl Sings! By Frank Higgins
December 4 – December 22, 2013
Kitchen Theatre Company
417 W. State/MLK Jr. Street, Ithaca 14850
With a slide blues guitar placing the story during the early 1930’s, Black Pearl Sings! opens onto an office reserved at a Texas prison for ethnomusicologist Susannah (Emily Dorsch). She works for the Library of Congress and her project is to collect and record songs from prisoners who are descended from slaves who arrived in this country from Africa. Pearl (Lisa Gaye Dixon) is an inmate who grew up among a population of Black Americans called the Gullah on an island off the coast of South Carolina. The Gullah, brought to this remote region on slave-trade ships, trace their lineage back to tribes on the west coast of Africa near Sierra Leone. The play is about the centrality of music as a means to keep cultural communities together by passing down their songs and to bring various cultures together through the sharing of their songs.
Pearl is slow to warm up to Susannah, to trust an unmarried White woman with her songs: spirituals of the praise houses [church]; work songs from the rice fields and songs of oppression (including communications hidden from the master overseer); songs that mean one thing to a six year girl take on an entirely different meaning as she grows into her body; love songs for family and lovers. So much can be expressed through lyrics and body language. Susannah proves to Pearl that she’s genuinely engaged with the songs and their purpose by playing her autoharp and singing Appalachian songs she’d collected previous research trips in the Southeast. Both actresses have beautiful complementary voices that are important to the story.
In a sense, their relationship develops much as the songs themselves are structured, as a call (A) and response (B). The two women “play” each other, tease each other, bait, argue and distrust each other. By sharing songs and personal stories they develop trust and a strategy to get Pearl paroled from prison to help herself, to find her missing daughter, and to help Suzannah gain an academic position that had been “stolen” from her by her former white male boss.
The second act takes place in a Greenwich Village apartment where the two of them are on tour with Pearl singing her songs that Susannah recorded. Conflicts ignite between the two of them as Suzannah falls into the trap of pursuing an academic reputation at the expense of Pearl’s growing self-respect as a performer earning a living.
This play is set in early 1930s America during the Great Depression. As part of the Federal Work Administration (WPA), the Federal Music Project and the Federal Art Project, often working with the Library of Congress, started collecting regional folksongs, works of art, and conducting audiotaped interviews of the “common man.” These cultural collections became topics of interest in academic circles as well as the public through concert performances and exhibitions that were a double-edged sword: the broadening of people’s understanding of regional differences among American citizens sometimes led to voyeuristic and financial opportunism.
It’s really true, “Important conversations happen in the Kitchen.” Go there and listen to some beautiful singing while learning about early 20th century America’s cultural differences that attempt to cross boundaries into understanding and acceptance.
Black Pearl Sings! Creative Team
Lisa Gaye Dixon (Pearl) and Emily Dorsch (Susannah)
Director: Sara Lampert Hoover
Lighting and Scenic Designer: David Arsenault
Costume Designer: Lisa Boquist
Sound Designer: Anthony Mattana
Production Stage Manager: Jennifer Schilansky