Playwright Frank Higgins showed up at the Clarence Brown Theatre for last Friday's opening-night performance of Black Pearl Sings! The Kansas City-based playwright was in the audience, and he seemed to be enjoying it. It was a charismatic performance, and though not a sell-out, the audience was of a healthy size, laughed in most of the right places, and even sang along when required.
Directed by Kate Buckley, Black Pearl Sings! turns out to be better than you expect it to be. The premise—a naïve white folklorist interviewing a black convict for the "authentic" songs she knows—seems a recipe for sanctimony, and an after-school lesson for whites on how clueless we are about the black experience. At worst, it could have been a Hallmark Hall of Fame special with a message for all of us.
And frankly there's some of that. But considering it's a two-act play with only two characters and two scenes (well, three, sort of) it turns out to be consistently interesting.
Not five years old, Black Pearl Sings! is not very well known yet, still making the rounds of American community theaters. (It was produced at Washington's Ford's Theatre in 2009.)
Clarence Brown pro Tracey Copeland Halter wholly becomes Pearl, and her charisma and singing voice carry the show. She opens the play as a gruff and hostile murderer in shackles, a member of a Texas chain gang. It's 1933, and she begins the play literally wearing a ball and chain. She seems as dangerous, and as desperate, as a chained bear. She works in the swamps and sometimes shows up for her interviews with leeches still clinging to her, and finds pleasure mainly in ridiculing her naïve white savior/captor and
dancing an amazingly lewd step. For sheer brazen sexuality, most actors couldn't match Halter's dance, even if they dispensed with their costumes.
There's a shadow over her life, though, things she won't share, like the reason she killed and sexually dismembered a man just because he "needed killin.'" We gather maybe it had something to do with her 12-year-old daughter, now grown, but apparently missing, and Pearl's primary concern.
By intermission Pearl undergoes a remarkable transformation. Celebrated for her music, she's confident, almost happy, in the second act, in a stylish dress and coif, learning about the strange bohemian neighborhood known as Greenwich Village, and talking about Cab Calloway and the other acquaintances she's made in 1934 Manhattan.
Making her local debut is Chicago actress Susan Shunk, who plays the well-intended but sometimes bloodless scholar Susannah. She plays the part well physically, reminding you of people you've known whose carefully constructed dignity is vulnerable to daily truths. But the night I saw her, she seemed a little too quick with lines that would seem to require at least a half-rest of thought.
It is, of course, a distaff version of the John Lomax/Huddie Ledbetter story: Leadbelly, a Louisiana killer, was sprung from his chain gang just in time to roll into New York as a celebrity and spawn the folk-music revival of the mid-20th century.
The script has some interesting potential, surprising complexity, domestic intrigue, and several belly-laughs, but could use another good going over. A few lines might elicit some eye-rolling. A couple of plot turns seem extremely unlikely, there for the melodrama alone. Pearl really wants to go to Houston to try to find her daughter, rather desperately, but her parole is dependent on her making presentations to New York scholars the day after tomorrow? Why? But later on, as a fellow theatergoer noted, she seems more upset about a frankly dumb wardrobe suggestion than she does about a subsequent family tragedy.
And would any 20th century African-American—or any 20th-century Anglo-American—have such a strange affinity for the Old Country of a couple of centuries past? Even to the extent of knowing African-language songs? We'd like to think so. But really?
I spent the last hour of the play wondering how they were going to wind it up. Whatever I was expecting, it was not the final scene. But before we get there, the audience joins Pearl in a chorus of "Kumbaya" (a different version than the one you learned in camp). Two hours is a long time to watch two people, but I did not yawn.
Knowing Higgins was in the audience, I cringed, sure someone was going to shout "Author!" during the ovations, but no one did. It's not a brand-new play, after all. But after no one did, I sort of wished they had, just
because I don't remember seeing that happen at the Clarence Brown.