Black Pearl Heart Break

In the search for a cultural heritage, Frank Higgins’ masterpiece reveals a deeper passion through song

Susannah and Pearl

Always a ­defensive arm’s length from one another, Susannah and Pearl’s friendship develops | Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre

In the 1930s, America was a grim place of intense poverty and shattered dreams. But out of the dust and desperation a deep, low song arises, rich with history, pain and heart. This is what musicologist Susannah Mullally has been searching for, and it will change her life.

In Frank Higgins’ beautiful stage play Black Pearl Sings!, two hours of soulful folk and blues classics pour forth from a woman’s deep well of suffering through the glory of a human voice. These songs are born of bondage, and released through the provocation of opposites. But while the interaction alone makes for fine theatre, it is the musical gravity that truly packs the punch.

Susannah, an ambitious musicologist for the Library of Congress played by Adrienne Ferguson, is searching for African songs that arrived in America on the slave ships. She meets Pearl, a hardworking, black mother from South Carolina’s Gullah island people, imprisoned for murder. Sensing Pearl holds a key to true African song, Susannah tries to record her songs for the Library. An immense talent is revealed. But Pearl, in a heart-breaking performance by Carole Alston, will only participate if Susannah helps find her missing daughter. Pearl is granted probation, and Susannah’s dreams of bringing Pearl’s gift of song to the public is realised in a New York debut.

Inspired by the interactions between musicologist John Lomax and blues musician Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Higgins has crafted a story of a vanishing chapter of American musical history and the societal perceptions of it. Like Lomax, Susannah is intrigued by African folk songs, but her understanding is limited and her viewpoint condescending. Pearl sees this, and plays her own game. Under Akin Babatunde’s finely tuned direction, the women’s collaboration comes alive with crackling electricity. With their decisively different takes on “Little Sally Walker” (Susannah’s is lily white; Pearl’s is grunting and saucy), sparks fly.

Susannah is unflappable: Discovering a rarity could mean a scholarly coup, and score her a posh job at Harvard. Her star-maker relentlessness turns her every action into a strategic move, and erodes any trust Pearl might place in her.

If Ferguson’s Susannah has the unsettling slickness of oil, then Alston’s Pearl is the water, an unquenchable fountain of soul that gives the play its depth. Alston’s voice is a pool of light, shimmering and resonant. Her wit is sharp, her defence fierce, and her resolve unyielding.

Director Babatunde has staged a delicate social theme showing its complexities and rawness, and the music he layers into the production strike a chord that mere words never could. Pearl sings with very little instrumentation, and instead of pouring her heart into song, her heart pours out of it. She uses music to distract a jailer (“This Little Light of Mine”), to annoy Susannah (“Do Lord, Remember Me”), to avoid a difficult subject (“Hard Times in Old Virginia”), and to mourn (“Six Feet of Earth”). As emotion takes hold, her voice springs to life; songs are her emotions.

Susannah is a patient listener, taking in Pearl’s grim heartbreak. Yet she never seems affected by it. A Teflon Woman, her regard for Pearl’s memories and pain is uncompassionate:

“I’ll give you a cigarette for a song,” Susannah offers at one point. Pearl shoots back: “You don’t get my soul for a cigarette.”

It is heartbreaking to see Pearl work so hard for Susannah, and be belittled in return, including by a music critic who christens her “black Pearl” – and not as special or rare. “Black Pearl” slides off the tip of his pen like inky oil, smudged and thick with its own toxicity. Even Susannah doesn’t get it; she’s so engrossed by news coverage raising their profile, she doesn’t see that Pearl’s enthusiasm and energy have evaporated. Everyone sees this pearl as an oddity, a circus attraction, instead of “a speck of sand that stuck with it.”

It takes true heartbreak to shake Susannah out of her dream world. And here Ferguson and Alston really shine. Seeing a shattered Pearl, a stunned Susannah is finally compelled to reach out and touch Pearl for the very first time. Pearl now sings and finally looks at her as a friend. It is a reconciliation, the two women joined by song. However, it’s exhausting to watch: An Austrian man sitting nearby let out a deep sigh at the “rollercoaster of feelings.”

In the end, while Black Pearl Sings! weighs heavily, Pearl’s soothing, soulful soundtrack of memories are a sweet lullaby of hope – hope that people indeed can change, and the knowledge that pain can be transcended through music.

Black Pearl Sings!
Through 21 Oct.
Mon.-Sat., 19:30
Vienna’s English Theatre
8., Josefsgasse 12
(01) 402 12 60 0
www.englishtheatre.at

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