Playwright Frank Higgins began his writing career as a poet, so he pays careful attention to the way he puts words together. After some time working at poetry, he felt that his best pieces were stories about people. With encouragement from a director, he turned his full attention to playwriting — and hit his stride with a series of works, including The Sweet By ’n’ By, which was produced by the mother-daughter team of actresses Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow; The Country of the Blind; WMKS: Where Music Kills Sorrow; Gunplay and Miracles. His most produced work is Black Pearl Sings!, written in 2007 and receiving its local premiere at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, opening this week (through March 31).
The play is a story of how music can transform pain into beauty. Susannah, a song collector for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, scours southern America in search of singers who have received authentic songs handed down from generation to generation, African-American tunes and words that pre-dated slavery. In Texas, she comes upon Pearl Johnson, who knows and sings songs from a distant, poorly remembered past, the ticket to academic fame Susannah has been hoping to find.
But Pearl is serving a 10-year prison sentence for murdering a man who was taking advantage of her daughter. Susannah obtains Pearl’s release and soon she is singing her soul-baring songs for audiences up and down the East Coast. But both women have ulterior motives: Susannah has been cheated out of an academic appointment, while Pearl yearns to reconnect with her daughter.
In a recent phone conversation, Higgins told me that while he’s not a musician, he resonates with the importance of songs in people’s lives.
He fully understood the powerful motivation to preserve historic music that drives Susannah in this story. “When a person dies, a history is lost,” he explains, thinking of the motivation for WPA efforts to collect living folklore. “As people were dying off, a world was passing from us.” The growing popularity of radio in the 1930s meant that people gravitated to popular music and lost track of the traditional music that Pearl sings in this show.
Higgins’ real-life inspiration for Black Pearl Sings! was musicologist John Lomax, who traveled with cumbersome equipment during the Depression to record songs he heard in Texas and the Southwest. Lomax discovered “Leadbelly,” an actual Folk and Blues singer (his name was Huddie Ledbetter), born in 1888, and brought him to public attention and fame.
Higgins gave his play greater depth and resonance by translating these men into women who have to contend with additional prejudices and challenges of their era: Susannah is a woman trying to succeed in the male-dominated world of academia, while Pearl struggles against poverty and an unforgiving justice system and then must find her way when a fascinated public objectifies her music and treats her as a commodity rather than a human being.
From a documentary film, Higgins learned about a slave song recognized by a professor from Sierra Leone as containing words from a dialect in his African home. The song, used at gravesides by grieving mourners, had traveled to America from Africa and was passed along for nearly two centuries. The documentary, The Language You Cry In, provided the emotional inspiration for Higgins’ play.
I saw a production of Black Pearl Sings! at Florida Studio Theatre in 2009 and I thought it would be a show appreciated by Cincinnati audiences, especially those who frequent Ensemble Theatre, where works of social and historical importance (such as last season’s The Whipping Man) are thoughtfully staged. ETC’s D. Lynn Meyers chose it for the Over-the-Rhine theater’s current season after seeing a production at the University of Tennessee a year ago.
“The most important thing to be about Black Pearl Sings!,” Meyers says, “is how friendship can be based on mutual need. The show is set during the Great Depression, a time of great need and great change. Two women from very different backgrounds have to find their paths, not only in how to survive, but also how to succeed and thrive in that time. I love that the script incorporates music into its core and that the music is A Cappella.”
Higgins’ script requires just two actresses, but they must be carefully chosen for these multi-dimensional roles. Two local veterans should fit the bill: Annie Fitzpatrick, a regular at ETC, is playing Susannah; Torie Wiggins, a product of the drama program at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, brings Pearl to life.
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