theater (reviews)

review: black pearl sings!

Black Pearl Sings!

[a play with music] by Frank Higgins
Directed by Seth Rozin
Starring C. Kelly Wright and Catharine K. Slusar
InterAct Theatre Company, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia
production web site: http://www.interacttheatre.org/2009-2010-feature-4.html
May 28, 2010-June 27, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 15, 2010

I read this play as a script reader for a major theatre in Chicago two years ago and am thrilled to have had the opportunity to see this spare and powerful piece expertly cast, deftly dressed (set and actors), simply lit, elegantly directed, and superbly acted.  InterAct Theatre Company is doing something special and will be for another 10 days or so.  Do yourself a favor and catch this special production during its short run.

A powerful and evocative story, based on fact, of two women portraying race and power and privilege and entitlement and cultural and historical ownership.  Think SONGCATCHER (a movie about recording Appalachian tunes based on Old English melodies at the turn of the 20th century) meets SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (the movie prison story from about the same time period).  South Carolinian African American Pearl (C. Kelly Wright) is serving a prison sentence in Texas in 1935 for killing a man, and ‘song catcher”/ “song collector” / musical historian white Susannah (Catharine K. Slusar) visits the prison to record field songs and others known by the inmates.  Pearl is focused on locating her daughter, now 22, she has not seen during her 10 years in prison, and relents to Susana’s entreaties for songs when she realizes Susana can help her first to research her daughter’s whereabouts and finally to sponsor her for parole.  Conditions on Pearl’s ultimately granted parole include traveling with Susana to Bohemian New York and performing the old slave and field songs Pearl knows.  These women are at odds culturally yet share a profound bond: women finding their ways in a man’s world.

This is an efficiently constructed story of two strong personalities, engaged in a pitched battle against the world, in which they are clear that they can use one another for their own purposes.  Pearl shares the songs she knows (saving the most precious and rarest for herself and her family) in order to find out about her daughter and gain her parole.  Susanna wants to develop her own academic reputation after early discoveries were credited to another academic.  Pearl has her own comments about this element of Susana’s life.  “Is that what you think hard times is?  Not getting enough credit?  Then you got an easy life.”

One quibble with the playbill — this is a play with music, and the tunes performed by Pearl and Susannah are not mentioned.  The folk and other tunes of cultural and story importance, written into the script, should be listed and annotated to complete the act of honoring these lives as portrayed by this production, with this script.  This is my constant harangue it seems: list the tunes performed within a production with enough identification details to educate the audience member and even (dare we hope) spur them on to further inquiries.

This play’s language is spare and powerful, and gives us the stories of two independent woman about whom we care.  There is a provocative dramatic arc, even though a few key plot elements are delivered (ploddingly) via a sudden telegram or a phone call.  The real treat: the songs Pearl sings, sometimes joined by Susana, primarily without accompaniment.  C. Kelly Wright’s performance is awe-inspiring.  And this production designed by Shannon Zura (set and sound) and Maria Shaplin (lights) is a stunner.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 16, 2010)

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