More obviously and tellingly, the play is also a dance of race relations, race politics and the sometimes heartbreaking history of relationships between black and white women, fraught as they can be by subservience, racial assumptions and disparate notions of class privilege.
In a way, Black Pearl (Torie Wiggins) is the foremother of Prince when he walked around with SLAVE stenciled on his face as a form of protestation until Columbia Records relinquished its claim to his masters based on an old contract with slave-like stipulations. A young black attorney untwisted that contract and won Prince’s case. (I love the irony of deeming original recordings “masters,” seeing as how they have lauded over and controlled countless black artists.)
In many more ways Pearl is an intellectual contemporary of Zora Neale Hurston, the way she unflinchingly understands her relationship to white power structures big (the Dickensian prison complex of 1930s America) and small (folklorist/friend/foe Susannah Mullally played crisply by Annie Fitzpatrick.)
Like Hurston — and most black women of that era and beyond — Pearl knows when she’s about to be asked to dance, monkey, dance! and she knows what toll doing that dance will take on her soul; she possesses and is possessed by the emotional language — sung and spoken — to articulate that toll.
Hurston is slyly and bitchily referenced via telegram in the second act. It cracked me up but seemed to baffle nearly all the mostly white weeknight audience who otherwise laughed uproariously at Pearl’s and Susannah’s more obvious humor.
Some was stereotypical: Pearl teaching Susannah how to “let her body flow” while singing “Little Sally Walker” during an early meeting in the Texas prison warden’s office.
The intention, of course, was to prove the notion that white people can’t dance and white women are sexually uptight.
What is much more intriguing are the dizzying negotiations and re-negotiations between the women over the minutiae and conditions of Pearl’s literal and emotional freedoms and Susannah’s understanding and exploitation of and, finally, respect for those freedoms.
Playwright Frank Higgins bases these characters on the 1930s recordings of Leadbelly by John Lomax for the Library of Congress, a popular, federally funded undertaking to preserve never-before-recorded songs and stories of the country’s southern and mountainous regions.
It’s nothing short of a revolution that Higgins had the poetic sense to morph these real men into fictional women, imbuing the storyline with subtexts of motherhood, paternalism, women’s rights and sexual harassment.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Wiggins for more than a decade, introduced by a mutual friend while Wiggins was on her way to becoming the College-Conservatory of Music’s first black woman to receive a BFA in dramatic performance — and we became closer, still, once she and director Jeff Griffin, also a CCM alum, co-adapted Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths In Black & White, my 2004 book of former CityBeat columns and NPR commentaries.
It’s when I saw Producing Artist Director D. Lynn Meyers for who she is and has always been: a beastly, driven, manic, seat-of-her-pants badass as subversive as the 1960s and as cunning as the 21st century.
Meyers and her board cannot be thanked enough for their continued wingmanship and anchoring of Over-the-Rhine for 27 years.
We owe them big; however, in a board member’s clumsy introduction to the performance, he told the audience he hoped we’d all finally felt “comfortable” coming downtown again, what with the shops, bars and restaurants of Gateway Quarter now buttressing the theater.
His bad form is a small price to pay for entree to ETC’s ever-impressive presentation.
It’s because Meyers and a crack team of sometimes bedraggled and woefully underpaid professional staff and interns pull off race work of the most important kind. It’s what the arts exist to do — to help us see who we are in the real world by reminding us of how we appear through a lens darkly.
ETC stages seemingly old-timey plays that deliver new, everlasting and meaningful commentaries on whom we were at any dot on America’s timeline with a yardstick measuring how little sometimes we’ve actually changed.
There have been ETC’s stagings of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel; August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean; George Stevens Jr.’s Thurgood; and Luther Goins’ Love Child, among others.
As I watched Wiggins work out Pearl’s battered and gospel-fried psyche, Moby crossed my mind.
I came home and dug out the bald appropriator’s 1999 extrapolation/remix of “Trouble So Hard” by Vera Hall, the Alabama-born Folk singer who was married at 15 and widowed at 18. He called his version “Natural Blues,” but there’s little organic about his techno-fied song that had gay men and X-popping ravers partying like it was 1999.
Because it was.
Moby may have been trying to nod to John Lomax, who’d originally recorded Hall’s “Trouble So Hard” in the 1930s.
That nod felt more like a generation-spanning slap to Hall and the black fieldhands and sharecroppers whose music echoed death and not delight.
I also thought of Clive Davis and his claims of “discovering” Whitney Houston, who’d already been singing professionally for years when Davis signed her.
Lomax may have preserved black music, but his musical sons and grandsons have exploited it.
After the show I gave D. Lynn a hug and thanked her for giving Torie Wiggins a job. It’s tricky, disappointing and hardscrabble earning any living as a black actress anywhere.
“Thank you for bringing her to me,” she said.
Thank you for bringing Pearl to us.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org