Those who do not remember the past are doomed to lose it. We’re playing fast and loose with Santayana’s famous quote, but this idea seems to have motivated musicologist John Lomax, who “discovered” folk-blues singer and songwriter Leadbelly, who was imprisoned for murder and pardoned in 1925 by the governor of Texas, who visited the prison and heard him sing. Eventually, Lomax guided Leadbelly on a concert tour in the 1930’s.
All this history so fascinated playwright Frank Higgins that he wrote a play called “Black Pearl Sings,” currently on view at Horizon Theatre through April 25. The play very closely echoes the true story of Leadbelly, except now we have two women: Susannah (Cynthia Barrett) – white, educated, and from a well-to-do family; and Pearl (Minka Wiltz) – black, poor, and in a Texas prison; but she possesses a wonderful singing voice. Even better, for Susannah’s purposes (the play is set in 1935), Pearl has memory of music; and Susannah’s mission is traveling the country making archival recordings for the Library of Congress.
Susannah has connections; she can and does secure Pearl’s release from prison, with certain conditions attached. The second act finds the two women in New York City, where “Black Pearl,” as she is called by her rapt audiences, becomes an instant celebrity for the hip Greenwich Village crowd, revered for her musical treasures rooted in the African tradition.
The play has a curious lack of dramatic tension, except when it explores the dynamics of Susannah and Pearl’s relationship. And there is no instrumental accompaniment (reminiscent of this season’s “Avenue X” at the Alliance, similarly unsatisfying). Surely Susannah could have found a guitarist in New York City to accompany Pearl. The a cappella thing quickly wears thin for me, even if Ms. Wiltz’ voice is glorious (and it is). Ms. Barrett also sings very well. Both women are quite compelling actors—very fortunate, since they are the entire cast.
Perhaps it would help if director Andrea Frye, who has a keen and subtle eye for the dynamics between the two women, picked up the pace a bit. There are some pauses which seem interminable. But it is Higgins’ play, which has the feel of being a work in progress, where some judicious pruning would doubtless prove helpful. Perhaps what he really wanted was to tell Leadbelly’s story; I have a feeling his story would have made more riveting theatre, which is, after all, the art form we’re using here.