True story: On the way to see Penumbra Theatre’s
Black Pearl Sings! , I was listening to Jonny
Lang sing an old blues song called “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” and thinking: hmmmm, this the best version of this tune I’ve ever heard. It sounds so . . . authentic. Like he means it. But that can’t be, I thought a second later, because Lang is a white kid—from North Dakota, no less—and that song was written by Sonny Boy Williamson back in the 1930s. I’ve heard Williamson’s version too, and Lang’s is completely different, yet somehow truer to the spirit of the song (in my humble estimation). Then another thought: Am I reacting to it that way just because I’m a white guy who likes rock-based blues and blistering guitar solos? Probably. Then again . . .
I had a play to see, so my thought bubble disappeared. As it turns out, the play, Black Pearl Sings! , is set in 1935 and is about a white, Harvard-educated, female musicologist (played by Stacia Rice), who trolls prisons in search of old songs she can record for the Library of Congress. At a women’s prison in Texas she meets Pearl (played by Crystal Fox), a black woman who knows lots of old slave-era songs, and whom the ambitious researcher believes might be her ticket to a tenured Ivy-league faculty position. A complex friendship unfolds, wherein each woman uses the other to get what she wants. Susannah the researcher wants grants, fame, and professional accolades; Pearl wants to get out of prison and find her estranged daughter.
But the play is really about the cultural ownership of intellectual property, an issue still very much alive today, when so-called “provenance” issues have museums all over the world returning art to their “rightful” countries and owners of origin. Songs and folklore are a bit different, however, because they are passed along from generation to generation, person to person, and each individual who absorbs a song and passes it along alters it some distinctive way. Half the Grateful Dead’s song catalogue is old blues songs, for instance, but most Deadheads would be hard-pressed to tell you where the songs originated.
In Black Pearl Sings! , much is made of Pearl’s “authenticity,” and it’s the researcher’s dream to find a song whose provenance goes all the way back to Africa. Pearl knows such a song, but she’s cagey and won’t share it, because the song is too important a part of her cultural history. To Pearl, the white world’s interest in her songs is ridiculous, but she slowly comes to realize that she can take their curiosity to the bank. Thus begins her assimilation into the grand culture of American capitalism.
Playwright Frank Higgins has a lot of fun satirizing academics who are interested in “folklore,” particularly African-American folklore with which they have no personal connection. In the second act, when Pearl sees the bust of an African warrior in a Greenwich Village apartment, she asks, “Do Africans have heads of white people in their homes?” It’s a funny line, and Pearl’s inverse worldview provides plenty of gentle humor along those lines throughout the play. Authenticity is difficult to find in the U.S., where just about everything is an imitation or appropriation of something else. And through Pearl’s eyes it’s easy to see the absurdity of white people’s fascination with the roots of black culture, since they have no true connection to it and never will.
Stacia Rice’s Susannah is a prim, no-nonsense, type-A intellectual who has just enough salt in her veins to make her interesting. Susannah comes very close to being a caricature, but Rice is such a good actress that she makes the most of Susannah’s few vulnerabilities. And Crystal Fox is simply fantastic as Pearl, whose pain is etched in her face and in the songs that well up out of her so naturally. More than 20 songs are sung or referenced in this play, but it's not a musical—it's a play about the cultural power of music. Other than the occasional strum of Susannah’s zither, all the songs in the play are sung with no musical accompaniment whatsoever, an artistic choice that emphasizes the extent to which Pearl’s songs are a part of her blood and being.
Where things go a little haywire is in the second act, when Pearl and Susannah are delivering a series of presentations in Manhattan. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say that in her zeal to market Pearl to the masses, Susannah the benevolent researcher does a couple of things that are entirely out of character, and she does it because the playwright, Frank Higgins, couldn’t resist preaching to the choir. Yes, it’s tragic that black people were once slaves. Yes, it’s unfortunate that white people still stereotype blacks. And yes, white people did some unconscionable things to black entertainers back in the day. But no, plays don’t improve when you bludgeon the audience with messages they’ve already received. The issue is complicated further by the fact that the playwright, Frank Higgins, is white—which makes most of the second half look like an act of white contrition, or just massive white-man guilt.
That said, if you can enjoy a Jonny Lang song you can enjoy this play. For the most part it rocks, even though parts of it are a bit rocky.
Black Pearl Sings! continues through March 14 at Penumbra Theater .