It doesn’t take a long time to know that the music of “Black Pearl Sings!” is going to be special. Not when you have the brilliance of Janine Jones absolutely belting with a fervor that makes the hauntingly painful prison songs soar. The question is, what about the rest? The story? The characters? The journey?
San Jose Repertory Theatre’s kickoff into its 30th anniversary season was ushered in by this joyous, well-dramaturged and painful story of an unlikely friendship that at first, feels like a patronizing exploration of culture, ripe with every underlying insult possible. But ultimately, when intentions are made clear and reluctance is replaced with trust, what transpires is a transcendent tale of the bridges that are built through the power of song.
It’s the 1930’s, and Susannah Mulally is a bit of a failure in her own eyes. While pinning her hopes on a professorship at Harvard that never materialized because of her gender, Susannah finds herself working for the Library of Congress as an ethnomusicographer, trying to discover a pre-slavery song. That gig takes her to a prison in Texas. While in the warden’s office, she hears the incredible, powerful and painful voice of Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, an instrument that must have been inserted by God Almighty himself.
Instantly, Susannah wants to know more about the golden-throated inmate, who carries her heavy ball and chain, wearing the black and white prison stripes. But Susannah does not want to know just for herself or her job. She wants to preserve this woman’s story, preserve this woman’s voice, and ultimately, give this woman back a dignity she has lost as a criminal, and her ancestors lost as slaves.
It is not hard to figure out why Pearl is so skeptical about this white woman’s motivation. Susannah asks questions and shares knowledge that one would find insulting. While Susannah is well-educated and probably read plenty of books on slavery and the history of prison songs, probably banging out plenty of them on her zither, does she really need to tell Pearl all about slave history and what it must have been like to pick cotton? Pearl knows about all that, as evidenced by a small piece of blue cloth that she wears which belonged to her grandfather, a cloth that must still have the hints of his blood, sweat and tears.
The brilliance of this story, written by Frank Higgins and directed in wonderful, vivacious detail by the Rep’s artistic director Rick Lombardo, is that everyone in the audience is Pearl. We are skeptical too. We are not crazy about Susannah’s patronizing. We are not thrilled by her approach, as evidenced by plenty of audience groans after many of her early statements. But ultimately, we and Pearl begin to go on the same journey, the one that sees the heroism that Susannah ultimately wears like a beautiful ballgown, shiny and true. Book smarts is slowly and surely replaced by life experience, the best kind of education there is, one that an Ivy League school couldn’t give on its best day.
It all begins with a slight gesture. While the Jim Crow south forbade the mixing of anything black and white, infamously including lunch counters, toilets and water faucets, Susannah went right to the heart of humanity. A simple glass of water, shared by both, was that olive branch. While Susannah offered Pearl the first sip, Susannah then took over, purposely using the same side of the glass. Every ounce of the trust did not come flying out in that moment, but it most definitely began the path of surreal discovery for both, one that would ultimately allow a bond to be built, and one which would give these beautiful tunes to endless generations for the rest of time.
What is most rewarding about this production is the trust that is such a critical through line in the acting of this show. There are only two characters in the piece, one heck of a feat for a play that times out a tad bit south of two-and-a-half hours. The emotional demands are extremely complex in some painful moments. But both Pearl and Susannah, played in beautiful contrast by Jones and Jessica Wortham had many wonderful moments, and also found the humor and wisdom in Higgins’ excellent, albeit a bit long, script. Add that to a brilliant set design by John Iacovelli, whose set was highlighted by a cold and dank warden quarters, and a magnificent New York City bohemian apartment.
Throughout the play, I found myself jotting down some absolutely memorable lines such as when Pearl is planning a getaway in the prison, motivated by a chance to see a daughter she hasn’t seen in years, now living in Houston. “My father is in hell, my mother is in heaven, and my daughter is in Houston, and I’m seeing one of them tonight.” Or a humorous little morsel from Susannah, whose mother gave her this sage advice: “Say your vowels clearly, and clear your bowels daily.”
It really takes a play like this one, with a powerful story that is rooted in such colorful history, to remind us of foresight and heroism. Without people like Susannah, who had to take unpopular stands in order for progress to be made, there are no recordings of some of the most beautiful and inspiring music ever. Music that was probably sung in the bottom of a ship by a deathly scared group of Africans, sung in darkness and headed to somewhere unknown, as Pearl so eloquently stated. Music sung by slaves, songs that motivated a tired body and a beaten soul, in order to finish the painful work in the Southern heat.
Without people like Pearl, there is no opportunity to learn the true meaning of a song I’ve heard forever, Kumbayah. And there is no opportunity to sit in a theatre in a major metropolitan city, listening to a beautiful chorus of patrons sing.
How did we know what to sing? We knew because Pearl and Susannah taught us.
EXAMINE IT FOR YOURSELF
San Jose Repertory Theatre presents “Black Pearl Sings!”
Written by Frank Higgins
Directed by Rick Lombardo
Starring Jessica Wortham as Susannah and Janine Jones as Pearl
Through Sept. 26th
Tickets range from $36 – $74
All performances take place at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
San Jose, CA 95113
For tickets, call the box office at (408) 367-7255 or visit San Jose Rep’s official website.
David is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Email him at [email protected]
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