It’s a blistering hot summer day in a Texas prison. The year is 1933.
Susannah Mullally has spent all day talking and listening to prisoners in a warden’s office, but she still hasn’t found what she’s looking for. She starts to pack up her work gear, but then she hears it. She hears her.
From a faraway prison cell, Susannah hears a powerful, yet haunting, voice singing, “Down on Me, Lord, Down on Me. Seems like everybody in this whole wide world is down on me.”
This is what Susannah has been searching for. This is who she has been searching for.
The mysterious singer’s name is Alberta “Pearl” Johnson. When the two women finally meet in that warden’s office, little do they know that they’re about to change each other’s lives forever.
This is where Black Pearl Sings!, an uplifting play by Frank Higgins, begins.
Passionate and driven, Susannah is a Library of Congress musicologist on the hunt for one thing: to record a song from Africa that pre-dates slavery.
When she hears Pearl singing, Susannah thinks she’s found the answer to her prayers. But it’s not just Susannah who feels she’s found what she’s been looking for.
Pearl, a Black prisoner with a steely spirit and a soulful voice, wants out of prison so she can find her missing daughter. She thinks Susannah might be the key to winning her freedom.
“What stands out to me the most about Black Pearl Sings! is the absolute strength of character in Pearl,” said FST’s Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins. “She has known tragedy and heartache, and yet she maintains this inner strength that leads her to do the best for those she loves.”
Although the two women have different agendas, they build a genuine connection.
“The friendship between these two women is so nuanced and profound,” said Rachel Moulton, who plays Susannah in FST’s production. “We rarely see a relationship like this between two determined and fierce women onstage.”
The glue that holds their partnership together? Music.
“Music carries the emotions and stories of history,” said show director Kate Alexander. “Through it, we can feel like we are hearing songs as our ancestors heard them. This connection to the past is what Susannah and Pearl cherish the most about music.”
All of the songs featured in Black Pearl Sings! are real songs from history that have been passed down from one generation to the next through oral tradition.
“I wanted the play to have a variety of songs,” said playwright Frank Higgins. “There may be songs that the audience has heard before, but they won’t be familiar with the version that we do in Black Pearl Sings!. In fact, the last song of the play is a real song that was recorded in South Carolina by a song collector in the early 1930s.”
Bringing this uplifting historical drama to life are Rachel Moulton (Maytag Virgin, Curious Incident) and Alice M. Gatling (brownsville song (b-side for tray), Black Pearl Sings! in 2009).
“I can’t wait to see how the character fits me now - it’s been 14 years!” said Gatling. “Revisiting this character is a little scary and yet exciting. I have not performed since 2019, so I’m a little anxious about returning to stage. But I’m grateful that my return is with Black Pearl Sings!.”
“It’s an incredibly powerful play, so it’s not surprising that FST is producing it again,” added Moulton. “I really hope that audiences come away from Black Pearl Sings! knowing that it is important to tell your story and that every person’s story matters.”
Black Pearl Sings! is now playing in FST's Keating Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.
Header Image: Rachel Moulton and Alice M. Gatling in "Black Pearl Sings!." Photo by John Jones.