Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (Abridged)
Playwright Frank Higgins took his inspiration from the true story of musicologist John Lomax discovering blues musician Huddie Ledbetter ("Lead Belly") while he was collecting folk songs in prisons and working for the guitarist's parole. Higgins has fictionalized the characters and changed them into women: Alberta "Pearl" Johnson (White), who has spent 10 years in prison for murder, and Susannah Mullally (Castracane), a Library of Congress researcher determined to launch an academic career.
The time is the early 1930s, when women in Texas prisons worked on chain gangs and were forced to clean out leech-infested swamps. Pearl can't understand why a college-educated white woman would want to spend her time recording folk songs sung by African-American prisoners; Susannah tells her, "When a person dies, a library is lost," and that some of the songs could trace their history back before slavery to Africa. The pragmatic Pearl holds out until Susannah offers her something in return: helping her find her missing daughter.
Director Sandra L. Holloway capably guides the women as they move from the prison, where Pearl is the expert, to New York City, where Susannah brings Pearl to perform. Here the roles are reversedSusannah wants Pearl to prove her "authenticity" in ways that make Pearl feel as if she's being put on displayand small explosions gradually build up to the big one.
What's so spectacular about White's performance? The ways she reveals layers beneath layers of her character, her deep and sincere emotions, and her dead-on way with singing folk songs and spirituals a cappella. (William Hubbard is the musical director.) Castracane has less to play because Susannah is well intentioned, unconsciously patronizing, and comes from a life of privilege. She may be struggling for recognition as a woman and a scholar, but she has never had to worry about getting an education and supporting herself.
Scenic designers Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan have done a lot with a little, creating first a prison warden's office and then a Greenwich Village apartment with only a few pieces of furniture and a rear wall. Janine Sunday's costumes help to delineate the characters as Pearl moves from her hideous prison uniform to elegant dresses in New York.