Black Pearl Sings at Penumbra Theatre

Crystal Fox (Pearl) and Stacia Rice (Susannah) -Photo credit: Ann Marsden

Playwright Frank Higgins does two very smart things with his vivid Black Pearl Sings! (at Penumbra, 270 N. Kent Street, St. Paul, through March 14, penumbratheatre.org). First, he shoehorns an amazingly wide range of Depression-era America into his story: the humid Texas penitentiary, complete with chain gang, the convict (Pearl) who holds, in her bones, a vast repertoire of old songs, the search in Houston for Pearl’s longlost daughter, the dramatic parole hearing, the Greenwich Village flat where Susannah takes the recently released Pearl, the Cooper Union stage where she performs. Granted, the piece is a two-hander and much of this action takes place offstage which creates, inevitably, some dramaturgical clunkiness. But it’s a small price to pay for the rich sweep of this play.

Second, Mr. Higgins finds and uses music, specifically singing – old lullabies, front porch songs, field hollers, privately composed songs, even ancient African melodies, and now the play crosses over into genuine theatrical magic. Are these archaic songs, evoking a lost time? Cultural artifacts to be recorded on vinyl and stored in the Library of Congress? Maybe, but Pearl sings them emphatically in the here-and-now. Are the songs commodities, to be performed for well-heeled New Yorkers (or theater-goers at Penumbra)? Higgins raises but never answers these questions. Beautiful stuff.

This play lives or dies on the power of the actor doing the eponymous Pearl and in Crystal Fox director Lou Bellamy has found the real deal. Fox (here making her Penumbra debut) is great. She quickly finds the softness inside Pearl’s hard convict cynicism. Everything about her is quiet, understated, sweet. Pearl’s vivid beauty shines. And the songs – it’s as though they come through Pearl, from some mysterious source. Fox has received, no doubt, plenty of help from music director Sanford Moore and director Bellamy. Her transformation into the shy, awkward, yet expert performer is masterful. She’s the best reason to see this show.

Also excellent is Stacia Rice as Susannah Mullally, the traveling librarian who “discovers” Pearl. Arch and angular, her initial reserve belying intense personal ambition, Rice’s Susannah makes great changes, and this sharply rendered character development keeps the play focused. And then, finally, the two women…

Of course I’m not going to reveal the play’s terrific ending.

The designers, C. Lance Brockman (the lovely sets), Marcus Dilliard (lights – is there a twin cities designer currently casting a wider net?), Kalere A. Payton (costumes, brilliant in the second half) and Martin Gwinup (sound, responsible for the gorgeous recorded music) all do first rate work.

Is Mr. Higgins working on a screenplay? I hope so and I really hope they make this one. The panoply of life presented here is unique.

Recommended.

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