Critic's PickIn a broiling Texas summertime smack in the middle of the Great Depression, Susannah Mullally, a song collector from the Library of Congress, is just about to give up her day’s search when she hears a rich, expressive voice coming from somewhere down a prison hallway. She has been patient, meticulously combing state institutions like this one, seeking songs she’s never heard before — and there aren’t many to find. She wants old songs that have never been written down, instead passed from one generation to another simply by being sung again and again as a family worked, cooked, celebrated, remembered or traveled.
In Frank Higgins’ play Black Pearl Sings! at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, song collector Susannah (Annie Fitzpatrick) forms an unlikely, very valuable partnership with Alberta ‘Pearl’ Johnson (Torie Wiggins), whose honeyed voice was gliding down the prison corridor that hot afternoon.
Wearing a leg iron and dingy prison stripes, Pearl records dozens of songs with Susannah in exchange for any information she can dig up on Pearl’s daughter who long ago quit sending letters to her mother.
Staged by ETC’s producing artistic director, D. Lynn Meyers, this two-person show features a perfect cast. The production plays well to each woman’s strengths as a performer. Fitzpatrick’s Susannah is tricky blend of sarcasm and warmth. A single, middle-aged woman with no children and incredibly bright, Susannah has a great passion for two things: songs and her freedom from housework and marriage. Fitzpatrick skillfully partners a prickly exterior with a compassionate heart, creating a delightful, endearing character.
Wiggins is wonderful as the strong, God-fearing Pearl, and her singing is the show’s magic ingredient. Pearl’s songs, mostly spirituals, are soulful, painful and irresistible as they resonate in the ETC’s space. Fitzpatrick and Wiggins are also excellent comedians, knowing how and when to land a funny moment in a dramatic script.
Beautifully acted and passionately sung, ETC delivers a moving, wonderfully entertaining piece of theater in Black Pearl Sings!
BLACK PEARL SINGS!, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through March 31.