DC theatergoers have rare access to what playwright Frank Higgins would consider an “authentic doorway into the past.” The Alliance for New Music Theatre has brought Higgins’ Black Pearl Sings! to life at Spooky Action Theater, exploding with songs and narratives that delicately address timely social issues while exposing the harsh, yet comical, realities of the past.
Based on the relationships between legendary folk and blues musician Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and Library of Congress folklorists John and Alan Lomax, Black Pearl Sings! begins in Texas during The Great Depression, where the protagonist Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Roz White) has spent the previous 10 years in prison for pulling a Lorena Bobbitt on an abusive suitor.
The contemporary play opens with Pearl donning prison stripes and a metal ball at her feet. While working in a chain gang, Pearl wrestles with the idea of her daughter out on her own since her incarceration.
Playing opposite to Pearl is Susannah (Susan Galbraith), an ambitious Library of Congress musicologist on a prison tour collecting indigenous folk and African American slave music in the South. Entering stage left, Susannah hears Pearl singing an unfamiliar, spirit-stirring tune and requests the singer’s company.
“When people die, history is lost,” Susannah says, simplistically stating the significance and relevance of Black Pearl Sings!
After sharing their truths, the two join forces – one vowing to reconnect with her daughter and the other vowing to find the perfect song collection.
This upbeat show relies solely on the talents of these phenomenal women. Battling the whole way, the two passionately dance on couches while confronting issues of race, social narratives and perspective.
“We have treasures of which we aren’t even aware,” White, a trained musical theatre actress, explains. “It’s important to know your worth, your history and what you have to contribute.”
White and Galbraith are one of the most dynamic duos to take the stage. The seemingly genuine quips and banter deployed onstage perfectly showcase their comedic talents and chemistry, promising to leave audiences laughing uncontrollably.
Though the storyline dips into deeper pools of social consciousness, a light-hearted mood prevails throughout the play. The simple choreographies paired with jovial tunes make this thoughtful production a winner. It shocks and calms when appropriate and features an easy, crowd-pleasing sing-a-long.
The modest décor of Spooky Action Theater is impeccably on-brand. Notes of sawdust fill the theatre, reminiscent of industrial and rural settings.
Fortunately, this production is not modest at all. With support from the Library of Congress and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Thomas W. Jones II applies more than 30 years of professional experience to engage audiences, using multimedia imagery to reinforce the performance.
The journeys of Pearl and Susannah are inspirational and uplifting. If you’re searching for an evening of heart-wrenching confessions, heartwarming songs and spiritual connectedness, look no further than Black Pearl Sings!
The Alliance for New Music-Theatre production of Black Pearl Sings! is showing through May 4 at the Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church. Tickets are $25-$40 and can be purchased here.
Universalist National Memorial Church: 1810 16th St. NW, DC;www.spookyaction.org
Correction: A previous version of this article did not clarify that The Alliance for New Music-Theatre produced Black Pearl Sings!