Rep’s “Black Pearl Sings” – not enough singing and too much talking and talking and talking

Driven by an obvious desire to cover all the bases – and even create new bases – playwright Frank Higgins has created two distinct and troubled characters who live in parallel universes.

And each character gets equal depression-era weight with troubles in “Black Pearl Sings,” the latest production at The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret.

One character is Susannah, a white woman who works for the Library of Congress and is traveling the country recording songs from the past that might be lost to history.

Her latest discovery is Alberta Johnson a black woman imprisoned for 10 years in Texas for “cutting the pecker off” an abusive male partner.

Susannah accidentally hears Alberta (nicknamed Pearl) singing and persuades her to sing some of the “old songs” and is amazed at both the power and beauty of Pearl’s voice. The battle to get Pearl, dressed in prison stripes with a ball and chain around her leg, ensues, a battle that obviously will end successfully with Pearl singing her head off like a combination of Beyonce, Pearl Bailey, and Marian Anderson.

Both of these women have enough problems to fill the most complex soap opera on afternoon television.

For Pearl she is in prison, worries about her daughter in Houston sho seems to have disappeared, is covered in a leech from working in a swamp, is suspicious of white people and is torn from her childhood home on an island in South Carolina.Along the way she is exploited, finds her daughter who dies on the way home as she gives birth to a baby girl (who just before death is named Pearl) and is willing to don a prison uniform for her performances.

Susannah has her own devils. She has been victimized by a powerful man who took credit for one of her discoveries, she has disowned her family for some unknown reason, she is forced to succumb to a former flame (married at that) to get something she wants and she is consumed by her scheme to use Pearl to get a job at Harvard.

There is a basis in truth for Higgins’ play.

In the 1930’s John Lomax from the Library of Congress discovered guitar player Lead Belly in prison. Lomax got him out of prison and toured the country with him, playing a white second fiddle to one of the greatest blues artists ever.

But Higgins has filled his play with so much stuff that it runs two and a half hours with a series of disjointed scenes moving us along Pearl’s journey from prison to performing in front of white liberal university audiences.

Two great actors, Colleen Madden and Lynette DuPree, and the wonderful direction of Leda Hoffman would lead you to expect an evening of rousing entertainment.

But that’s not what happened.

Ms. Madden, a member of the company at American Players Theatre, is one of the best in the state of Wisconsin. She is an absolute genius on a stage but is saddled here with a script that is so multi-dimensional that it’s hard to make sense of many of her moments.

Ms. DuPree is a force on stage, complete with the kind of askance glance that says a thousand words and a clear and warm voice.

But they aren’t enough to bring this thing off.

First of all, there isn’t nearly enough singing. This play is long on time-filling dialogue and short on songs. It is music, after all, that Susannah is searching for and less talk more music might make this production more enthralling.

In addition, this is another one of those Stackner productions that seems bent more on educating the audience than entertaining it. Three seasons ago “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” played at The Stackner and it was like a sophomore class in the history of banjo music.

If you want to write a play about the mystery of the evolution of music from the deep south, you better include a lot of music.

And you better look for surprises. “Black Pearl Sings” was transparent, with almost everything that happened fully expected and almost trite.

Kind of like your average soap opera.

Production Credits: Director Leda Hoffmann; Music director, Abdul Hamid royal; Scenic Designer, Courtney O’Neill; Costume Designer, Lauren T. Roark. Lighting Designer, Aimee Hanyzewski; Sound Designer, Erin Paige; Movement Director, Desiree Cocroft; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Audra Kuchling; Production Photos, Michael Brosilow.

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About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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