LIVE: “Black Pearl Sings” @ Capital Repertory Theatre, 3/13/12

Jannie Jones in "Black Pearl"
Jannie Jones in "Black Pearl"

If you’re familiar with the legendary folk-blues singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and how his life was intertwined with that of father and son song-collectors John and Alan Lomax, then you have a pretty good idea of what “Black Pearl Sings” is all about.

Playwright Frank Higgins switches genders, however, and in his two-character play, Irish-American Library of Congress song collector Susannah Mullahy (Jessica Wortham) “discovers” the powerful voice and rich musical tradition of African-American Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Jannie Jones), who is imprisoned in Texas for murder.

It’s a play about their journey together, the tension and unexpected friendship that arises from two women of very different backgrounds. They laugh. They cry. They dance. They fight. And, of course, they sing.

They form a bond through their mutual love of music.

Set in the 1930’s, the play reaches across the vast gulf of race and class differences, but it’s not a one-note focus, as Higgins’ also veers off into such issues as feminism and religion. It may be a bit too much.

There’s a surprising lack of emotional connection in the performance, in part due to the imbalance of Higgins’ play, which makes Susannah a somewhat one-dimensional foil to Pearl. There are a few other plot turns that just don’t seem to make sense – particularly the scenes concerning a newspaper review and an unexpected telegram. Director Patrick Mullins doesn’t really help matters, either, and the staging frequently feels blocky and too upright.

Ultimately, though the redemption of “Black Pearl Sings” lies in the music, and it’s by far the most successful element of the production that runs through Saturday, April 7 at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany. Jones is a wail of a singer. She proved it last season at Cap Rep in “Crowns,” and here she takes it up another notch. Her voice is a major presence, even before she steps foot on stage, as you hear her stretching her vocal cords and her emotional range from offstage.

And whether she’s singing chain-gang work songs, play party songs or sassy blues, she commands attention. For example at the start of act two, Jones slathers a simple fruit peddlar’s street song with a healthy dose of seduction.

But the undeniable highlight of the show is her towering rendition of the mournful “Trouble So Hard.” (Pop music fans will perhaps better know the song as “Natural Blues” – basically an extended dance-remix of a ’30s recording by Alabama folksinger Vera Hall – from Moby’s 1999 breakthrough album, “Play.”) Jones gives the song a tour de force performance.

And while Jones is clearly the musical focus of the play, Wortham is no slouch in the vocal department, either.

Although music is the driving force of “Black Pearl Sings,” there is virtually no musical accompaniment, except for a bit of autoharp strumming by Wortham on a couple of tunes. The power of the a cappella human voice is the cornerstone of what the play is all about – which is why it was disappointing that Jones’ final song of the night was accompanied by pre-recorded instruments, breaking the magical, musical spell that the production had maintained all night long.

Great theater? No, probably not. Great music? You bet, and well worth an evening at Capital Rep.

“Black Pearl Sings” continues its run at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany through Saturday, April 7.

Bob Goepfert’s review at The Saratogian
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Rich DiMaggio’s review at
Excerpt from Matthew G. Moross’ review at The Daily Gazette: “Most stories that mix a clash of cultures could be full of fire, but Higgins’ script simply frustrates and is filled with a host of lost opportunities. From the very beginning, there is no organic tension. Odd, because the characters want and need something from each other and each holds a key to set the other woman free. Susannah can maneuver Pearl out of the prison to find her daughter — something Pearl wants. And Pearl can sing the songs that can get Susannah a position at Harvard — something Susannah wants. Yet there is little palpable tension in the play. The discomfort and distrust is indicated and talked about, but is not placed into honest action. What we have is a docudrama that, no matter how well-intentioned, is emotionally sterile and remote.”

Jessica Wortham
Jessica Wortham
Jannie Jones and Jessica Wortham
Jannie Jones and Jessica Wortham

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