After 14 years and more than half a dozen productions across the country, Frank Higgins’ stirring drama, Black Pearl Sings!, returns to FST’s Mainstage. Set in the 1930s, this compelling play follows Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, a Black inmate in a Texas prison with a powerful singing voice, and Susannah, a white musicologist for the Library of Congress searching for undiscovered songs from before the Civil War.
When the two meet, the women soon discover that the other holds the key to everything they’ve each been searching for. Pearl wants out of jail so she can find her daughter. (Susannah just might be her answer.) Susannah, on the other hand, wants to record the undocumented songs that only Pearl knows in order to advance her own career as a musicologist.
“Black Pearl Sings! is an ever-important play in the history of human tenacity,” said Richard Hopkins, FST’s Producing Artistic Director. “Pearl, for example, has known tragedy and heartache, but she somehow maintains a strength of character that leads her to do the best for those she loves.”
For Alice M. Gatling, who returns to FST to reprise the role of Pearl, the play is about relationships and women’s empowerment.
“Although these two women have different agendas, we watch their friendship grow,” said Gatling. “We also see them step up and take control of their own destinies.”
Kate Alexander, who directed FST’s 2009 production, is also looking forward to revisiting this uplifting play.
“Black Pearl Sings! is an incandescent play,” said Alexander. “When I re-read the script, I was moved, laughed out loud, and even got goosebumps. When that happens, it tells me that there are truths in the play that will move you to your core.”
Although Black Pearl Sings! features just two characters, there is a third that is ever-present in the play: the music.
Black Pearl Sings! features 20 American folk and spiritual songs, all of which are authentic, historical songs that have been passed from one generation to the next via oral tradition.
“The play has a variety of songs—some that the audience has heard before, some that may be completely new to them, and a few songs that the audience is familiar with, but have heard presented in a completely different way,” explained playwright Frank Higgins.
One such song is “Down On Me,” a traditional freedom song from the early 1920s that was made famous by Janis Joplin in the ‘60s.
“Joplin learned of ‘Down on Me’ the same way I did—from a recording of traditional songs from Georgia and the South Carolina sea islands,” added Higgins. “We re-create the original version in the play, which is drastically different from what Joplin recorded in the ‘60s.”
In Black Pearl Sings!, music is the glue that holds Pearl and Susannah’s relationship together, because music is the one thing that both women deeply respect and appreciate.
“Music is the most powerful mood elevator on earth,” said Higgins. “Sometimes we don’t feel we completely know a person until we know the music they like. If we can know and appreciate the music of someone from a completely different background, maybe that’s a first step in getting closer to understanding.”
Black Pearl Sings! is now playing in FST's Keating Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.
Header Image: Alice M. Gatling and Rachel Moulton in Black Pearl Sings!. Photo by John Jones.