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‘Black Pearl Sings’ Revives Precious Musical History

The Alliance for New Music-Theater didn’t have to reprise the play “Black Pearl Sings” so recently after it was at Metrostage in Alexandria in 2016. But this revival of the play by Frank Higgins, which tells the story of a Library of Congress musicologist and her “discovery” of Pearl, a Texas inmate convicted of murder, packs an extra punch this time.

This version of the musical, two-woman show comes with an element of research, including a partnership with the Library of Congress and Duke Ellington School of the Arts students. The Museum Studies high schoolers created a display of photos and artifacts at the Universalist National Memorial Church, where the Spooky Action Theater is housed in the basement of the 16th street building.

“Black Pearl Sings,” gleans part of its story from the true ventures of John Lomax and his son Alan, both folklorists long affiliated with the Library of Congress who made recordings of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s prison-derived songs from the African-American vernacular.

Many of those songs were spirituals passed down from generations all over the American South, where Leadbelly spent many of his years as an inmate in Angola Prison in Louisiana, as well as in other Southern penitentiaries.

In Higgins’ play, the musicologist is in the personage of Susannah (Susan Galbraith), a white Library of Congress musicologist who has taken on the task of discovering uniquely American folk songs in the South in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

She hears the voice of Pearl (Roz White, reprising her Metrostage role), a Black inmate doing time in a Texas prison for murder, singing a mournful prison song. Susannah decides that Pearl must also know more authentic religious and secular songs passed down from Pearl’s predecessors. But when Susannah discovers that Pearl is a Gullah, from the South Carolina Sea Islands, she is driven to know the “African songs.”

The Gullah culture of South Carolina, and the Geechee culture of Georgia, both populating the coastal islands of the Southern states, are considered the most African cultures in the United States, where the music and language reflect the African cultures of the people brought to the islands as enslaved people.

Through a series of plots and ploys with each other, the two women form an alliance to record the songs and gain Pearl’s release from prison so that she can find her long-lost daughter. In a heartfelt dialogue, the women discuss their dreams — Pearl’s failing quest to find her daughter and return to Hilton Head Island, which was still inhabited by the Gullah people, and Susannah’s elusive dream of becoming a musicologist at Harvard University. She sees Pearl’s songs, which she deems a “discovery,” as her ticket.

But Pearl, not entirely trustful of Susannah’s motives, agrees to do a couple of shows in New York for Susannah’s investment in finding her daughter once the shows are over.

Instead, the unexpected happens in New York. Pearl is a hit not only among Susannah’s academic audience, but also in the night clubs of New York during the Harlem Renaissance, where she sings with Cab Calloway and wows the crowd with her bawdy blues tunes.

The Alliance for New-Music Theater also brings back Thomas W. Jones II, who directed the critically acclaimed production of “Black Pearl Sings” in San Diego.

“Even more importantly, ‘Black Pearl’ speaks and its language is rooted in a provocative conversation of race, gender and cultural appropriation, [and] it also provides an optimistic vision of bridging the racial divide,” Jones wrote. “It is a probing examination of self-interest sublimated by a greater journey of reconciliation and healing.”

White, a D.C. native and frequent Jones collaborator, also has a deeper connection to the story, tracing her heritage to the Gullah culture as she remembered spending time in the area during her childhood.

“I try not to get ahead of the story,” White said of her approach to the character of Pearl and their shared stories. “I try to be in it and whatever informs the way that I take it. We know what the words are on the paper. The words are the words, and they don’t change every night.

“So it is not going to go anywhere that Mr. Higgins didn’t want it to go,” she said. “But Tom Jones, on the other hand, sees into the words. That’s the joy of doing this every day.”

“Black Pearl Sings” plays at the Spooky Action Theater/Universalist National Memorial Church (1810 16th Street NW) through May 4. Post-production discussions and outreach programs designed to augment the play will be held in various locations. For a full schedule of performances, go to www.newmusictheatre.org.

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