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Black Pearl Sings ~ Alliance for New Music – Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 21, 2019 

Sandra L. Holloway’s searing production of Black Pearl Sings opens to the haunting strains of a Negro chain gang singing in cadence as they swing their pickaxes to the dirge-like rhythm.  This eerie chant leads us to Alberta ‘Pearl’ Johnson who has spent ten dismal years in a swamp-surrounded prison in southeast Texas for the murder of her abusive husband.  The story is inspired by Library of Congress folklorists John and Alan Lomax’s real-life discovery of the legendary folk singer and guitarist, Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter.

Roz White ~ Credit is Thom Goertel.

In this telling, Johnson is discovered by Susannah Mullally, an ambitious, and not incidentally, Irish-American ethnomusicologist employed by the Library of Congress to uncover America’s earliest indigenous music, and, by deduction, its African roots.  “You are an authentic doorway to our past,” Susannah pleads.  Playwright Frank Higgins, whose previous work has starred such notable actresses as Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, gives pathos and humor to this sensitive portrait of a woman hardened by a segregationist South and the cruel-hearted men in her life.

Roz White & Susan Galbraith ~ Credit is Thom Goertel.

At first Susannah’s attempts to coax out the early plantation songs Pearl learned from her slave ancestors are met with a steely rebuke.  But after a considerable period met with Susannah’s description of her country’s suppressed Gaelic language, the two women form a partnership with Susannah gaining Pearl’s pardon from the governor and eventual management of Pearl’s burgeoning music career.  “When do-gooders wanna do you a favor, let ‘em,” Pearl decides.

Roz White ~ Credit is Thom Goertel.

Memorable American folk songs and spirituals weave in and out of this musical, performed entirely in a capella by Roz White’s sinuous contralto and Susan Galbraith’s lilting Irish mezzosoprano, and directed by Thomas W. Jones II.  Their shared struggles, Pearl’s to earn money to track down her missing daughter, and Susannah’s to find scholarly recognition as a woman in a man’s world, eventually bring the women together culminating in a heart-wrenching duet with “Six Feet of Earth”.  Other familiar numbers include “Down on Me”, later made famous by Janis Joplin (also called “Pearl”), “This Little Light of Mine”, the Gospel favorite “Do Lord, Remember Me”, the sultry “Don’t You Feel My Leg”, and the universal spiritual, “Kumbaya”.

In one particularly humorous scene Pearl makes reference to her birth home on the Gullah island of Hilton Head, which back then was a desolate island off the coast of South Carolina populated by the descendants of African slaves.  After hearing a developer recount his vision of a golf course and condos on the tiny island, she decides to use it to motivate her to follow Susannah’s vision for her success.

Roz White & Susan Galbraith ~ Credit is Thom Goertel.

Roz White and Susan Galbraith are a powerful match-up.  Galbraith’s lilting Irish soprano on autoharp contrasted with White’s earthy, sultry voice accompanied by Afro-American rhythms are wonderful as is the contrast of their physicality and personalities – fire and ice on steroids.

A searing drama.  White and Galbraith are brilliant together.

Music Director/Arranger, S. Renne Clark; Set & Projections Design by Patrick W. Lord; Lighting Design by Hailey LaRoe; and Costumes by Mary Larson and Michael Sharp.

While in the lobby, be sure to check out the photographs and stories of the Gullahs of South Carolina’s Low Country (Pearl’s ancestral home.  It includes the early culture of African-American families and is compiled by students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Through May 4th at Universalist National Memorial Church in the Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009.  For tickets and information visit  www.newmusictheatre.org or call 202 256.7614

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