Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Higgins based his play on folklorist John Lomax who collected songs across the South from common folk, including farmers and convicts, in the 1930s and recorded them via a recording device he carried around with him. His most famous discovery was a man he found in a prison in Louisiana, Huddie Ledbetteraka "Lead Belly"an African-American guitarist and songwriter who went on to perform with folk singers of that era such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Higgins has spun the story to now be about two women, Susannah, a white woman working for the Library of Congress to collect songs, and Pearl, an African-American female convict in the Texas prison where Susannah has currently set up shop. Pearl grew up amongst the Gullah people on Hilton Head Island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, and Susannah is interested in obtaining from her the rare folk songs she learned from people on the island and hopes that it will help her secure an academic job. Pearl is more interested in finding her daughter, and the two women realize they can use each other to find the freedom they both so eagerly seek.
By changing the sex of the individuals, Higgins has crafted a play that not only focuses on racial issues but also touches upon the struggles of women in the male-dominated world of the 1930s. Over the course of the two hour play we learn many things about these two women, who become unlikely friends, and their stories. The songs Pearl sings highlight the importance of preserving our pasts through the music we sing and the stories we tell.
David J. Hemphill has done a lovely job directing Kwawu and Watts. They both deeply embody these very strong-willed women, warts and all, and in doing so create realistic individuals. Higgins' play, while not perfect, since the part of Susannah isn't quite as fully fleshed out as that of Pearl, does make us want to know what happens to these characters after the play ends. And it's a testament to the superb acting abilities of Kwawu and Watts, plus the witty dialogue and realistically drawn characters, that we care so much about these two women. Kwawu and Watts are giving two of the strongest and fully fleshed out portrayals I've seen on stage this season.
Thom Gilseth's set design simply but superbly evokes the two settings of the play while the costume designs by Mario Garcia are sensational, with the smart clothes and prison uniforms in act one completely the opposite of the stunning evening gowns and dresses in the second act. Walter Belcher supplies the music direction and both Kwawu and Watts lend their voices with only minimal musical accompaniment, if any at all, in some stirring renditions of over a dozen songs.
Higgins' story of these two womenone black, the other white, one educated, the other notin the turbulent racial and sexual times of the 1930s, makes for an intriguing but also exceedingly entertaining play. With superb portrayals by Kwawu and Watts, Higgins' tale of the importance of saving and preserving the past makes for a very powerful and emotional experience.
The Black Theatre Troupe production of Black Pearl Sings runs through April 24th, 2016, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at www.blacktheatretroupe.org or by calling 602 258-8129
Written by Frank Higgins
Directed by David J. Hemphill