Chicago Theater Review: BLACK PEARL SINGS! (Northlight Theatre in Skokie)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: BLACK PEARL SINGS! (Northlight Theatre in Skokie)

by Dan Zeff on January 31, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

WHOSE ETHNIC HERITAGE IS IT, ANYWAY?

Black Pearl Sings! is a two-hander that explores the odd couple relationship between a black woman in prison for murder and a white female academic in Texas during the depths of the Great Depression. The play touches on lots of chewy issues, like racism, sexism, and, most provocatively, what constitutes authentic national heritage and who owns it. The play, written by Frank Higgins, is receiving a strong production at the Northlight Theatre, thanks to a pair of superior performances by E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle.

Northlight Theatre presents Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins – with E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle – directed by Steve Scott – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The first act takes place on a women’s prison farm in southeast Texas in the summer of 1933. Susannah (McMonagle) is a folklore scholar traveling the hinterlands recording authentic folk songs. She stops at the prison because she knows that some of the best folk songs are embedded among prisoners in the South, especially black prisoners. She singles out Alexandra Johnson, known as Pearl, as a likely reservoir of genuine black folk songs. Pearl (Butler) grew up in the Gullah community off the coast of South Carolina, a fertile source of folk music as yet untouched, and thus unblemished by contact with the outside world. Pearl makes a stirring entrance, trudging slowly on stage with her legs in chains and carrying an iron ball. She’s been in prison for 10 years for murder and has nothing to live for beyond trying to locate her daughter, a child of 12 when Pearl went to jail.

It is mostly a cat-and-mouse game between Susannah and Pearl. The black woman is suspicious of this white woman, as her relations with whites have not been happy throughout her life. She is wary of what Susannah really wants from her. Susannah has a genuine passion for preserving the nation’s folk heritage in its pristine form, but she also has an agenda, using her folk music expeditions to earn grant money and build a resume in the academic community, aiming as high as a teaching position at Harvard. Each woman sees the other as a meal ticket, Pearl to find her daughter, and Susannah to make a reputation as a folk music conservator.

Northlight Theatre presents Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins – with E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle – directed by Steve Scott – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffThe second act moves to a Greenwich Village apartment in New York City in early 1934. Susannah has managed to get Pearl paroled in her custody as a national treasure of folklore. Susannah sets up a series of performances before liberal white academic organizations, showcasing Pearl’s folk singing. The liberal organizations eat up Pearl’s personality and her music…so long as her music doesn’t get controversial, such as songs that praise unions.

This act supplies the intellectual meat of the evening. Pearl agrees to perform before white audiences to earn money to finance the search for her daughter. She remains wary of the white interest in black folk culture, a culture totally foreign to white society, but she is willing to play the game, even encouraging the audience to sing along in a call and response mode. Susannah isn’t above promoting Pearl’s violent past and her primitivism for publicity, actually proposing Pearl wear her prison stripes uniform in the concerts to lend “authenticity” to her presentations.

Northlight Theatre presents Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins – with E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle – directed by Steve Scott – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffFor Susannah, the personal holy grail is being the first to record a black folk song that dates back to slave days, an achievement that would make her reputation in academia. Pearl knows such a song but withholds it from the white woman. That song will belong to her people and she won’t barter it away for the pleasure of uncomprehending white listeners. Pearl’s performance of that song brings the show comes to its emotional conclusion.

Black Pearl Sings! probes the question of who owns the rights to a national heritage, the creators of that heritage or society at large. Higgins could have delved into the issue more deeply but at least he has raised the point for audience consideration. It’s an ongoing controversy. The Greek government still wants England to return the Elgin marble sculptures back to their birthplace in Athens, while the English claim the masterpieces serve the world better preserved in the British Museum in London. So the ownership of fragments of a heritage will always remain a touchy question, colored by volatile national and ethnic feelings.

Higgins’s play doesn’t solve the issues it raises, but it does provide sumptuous roles for its two actresses. The show includes numerous folk songs, mostly performed without instrumental accompaniment; but this isn’t a musical, it’s a drama with music. The play is a special showcase for the actress playing Pearl, and E. Faye Butler seizes the opportunity with a brilliant performance that is variously belligerent, humorous, and yearning. Pearl isn’t supposed to be a professional singer, but Butler is one of Chicagoland’s leading divas, and the power of her voice can’t be suppressed. Plus, she does a terrific job of portraying a woman beaten down by racism and hard knocks her entire life, but one who still retains strength of character and a certain dignity, even when trying to survive in an alien white world.

Northlight Theatre presents Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins – with E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle – directed by Steve Scott – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

McMonagle has the more difficult of the two roles. Pearl will naturally get the attention, and sympathy, of the audience. Susannah is a more problematical figure, a woman of good intentions who is still on the make in building a career, with Pearl as her chief tool. In addition, the play scores comic points off the white character (playwright Higgins is white), mocking white stereotypes about blacks and its patronizing attitudes. At times the play seems like a white apology to the black world for misunderstanding and mistreating African American life so blatantly. White liberal audiences should eat it up.

But on balance, Black Pearl Sings! is a solid, sometimes provocative work built on a pair of luminous characters. Viewed solely as an E. Faye Butler concert, the play is worth the price of admission. Fortunately, there is enough dramatic substance underpinning the music to offer patrons two hours of stimulating, if not perfect, entertainment.

Credit Steve Scott’s directing for sustaining the play’s dramatic and musical momentum. Jack Magaw designed the settings, Emily McConnell the spot-on Depression era costumes, Sarah Hughey the lighting, and Christopher Kriz the sound.

Northlight Theatre presents Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins – with E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle – directed by Steve Scott – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

photos by Starbelly Studios

Black Pearl Sings!
Northlight Theatre
9501 Skokie Blvd in Skokie
ends on February 19, 2012
for tickets, call 847.673.6300 or visit Northlight Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Comments on this entry are closed.