By Manning Harris

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.

For more information, visit www.horizontheatre.com. To contact Manning Harris, email him at fmanningh@gmail.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

4 replies on “Theatre Review: Black Pearl Sings”

  1. While I understand Manning Harris’ points here, I have to wholeheartedly disagree with his assessment that the play has little dramatic tension and no accompanist. Black Pearl (played magnificently by Minka Wiltz) never needs an accompanist even though occasionally the character of Susannah (played by Cynthia Barrett) offers a brief plucking of an instrument. Unlike the reviewer, the audience that I viewed this play with fell deeply in love with this stagings authenticity, almost as much as they fell in love with both actors that brought two remarkable and head strong women to life. Unlike Harris, I seriously doubt that playright Frank Higgins wanted to do a play about Leadbelly. I met the playright after the show, and while he acknowledged Leadbelly, he mentioned that it was a woman who led him to the authentic African song that Black Pearl closes the show with. I suspect it is Manning Harris who would prefer seeing a story about Leadbelly rather than one about two women; and that really is a shame because he might have gotten more out of this amazing show.

  2. While I understand Manning Harris’ points here, I have to wholeheartedly disagree with his assessment that the play has little dramatic tension and no accompanist. Black Pearl (played magnificently by Minka Wiltz) never needs an accompanist even though occasionally the character of Susannah (played by Cynthia Barrett) offers a brief plucking of an instrument. Unlike the reviewer, the audience that I viewed this play with fell deeply in love with this stagings authenticity, almost as much as they fell in love with both actors that brought two remarkable and head strong women to life. Unlike Harris, I seriously doubt that playright Frank Higgins wanted to do a play about Leadbelly. I met the playright after the show, and while he acknowledged Leadbelly, he mentioned that it was a woman who led him to the authentic African song that Black Pearl closes the show with. I suspect it is Manning Harris who would prefer seeing a story about Leadbelly rather than one about two women; and that really is a shame because he might have gotten more out of this amazing show.

  3. Thanks for your response; I wish we got more. I’m glad you found the show amazing; our reaction to any work of art is always an individual one. You’ll find I was in fact very impressed with the two performers (as I said), particularly Ms. Wiltz. But the historical fact remains that it was largely Leadbelly’s story that inspired the play. I was simply pointing that out. I couldn’t care less who played it. And the half-full audience I saw the play with seemed less than ecstatic, though I do not base my reviews on others’ reactions. However, it’s great you so enjoyed the show; one should have fun and be thrilled in the theatre whenever possible; otherwise, what’s the point?

  4. Thanks for your response; I wish we got more. I’m glad you found the show amazing; our reaction to any work of art is always an individual one. You’ll find I was in fact very impressed with the two performers (as I said), particularly Ms. Wiltz. But the historical fact remains that it was largely Leadbelly’s story that inspired the play. I was simply pointing that out. I couldn’t care less who played it. And the half-full audience I saw the play with seemed less than ecstatic, though I do not base my reviews on others’ reactions. However, it’s great you so enjoyed the show; one should have fun and be thrilled in the theatre whenever possible; otherwise, what’s the point?

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