'Black Pearl Sings' opens at Geva Theatre Center
05:00 AM, Jan 23, 2014
If you go
Black Pearl Sings!
When: Thursday through Feb. 9, with performances this weekend at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Geva Theatre Centers Nextstage, 75 Woodbury Blvd.
Cost: Tickets start at $30.
For information: (585) 232-4382 or gevatheatre.org.
Interesting note: You might recognize Emily Dorsch, who plays Susannah Mullally, from her guest roles on TVs Law & Order and Boardwalk Empire. She also has an upcoming role in House of Cards. But the Yale School of Drama alumnus also has performed in A Man for All Seasons, Love, Loss and What I Wore and many other productions.
Based on a true story, Black Pearl Sings! is about friendship, class, race and music.
The play, which originated at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre in December, opens Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Studio Series and runs through Feb. 9.
It’s set in a Depression-era Texas prison where Susannah Mullally (Emily Dorsch) meets Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Lisa Gaye Dixon), an inmate with a powerful voice that Susannah overhears when Pearl is singing spirituals.
Susannah, a collector of songs for the Library of Congress, is visiting the prison in hopes of recording traditional songs that tell the history of America and the history of African-Americans, including songs sung by slaves before abolition.
At first, Susannah offers Pearl a cigarette to record her songs, then a dollar. Through friendship and some conflict, the two women arrive at a form of payment they both can accept.
Susannah, in exchange for Pearl’s songs, agrees to help her find her recently missing 22-year-old daughter and eventually helps Pearl get out of prison.
Their unlikely friendship explores the differences in background and experience each woman brings to their partnership. A crisis in the second act sheds light on the depth of their divide.
“The playwright has worked hard to present the differing points of view of each character,” says Dixon, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and holds a master of fine arts from Illinois State University. “He certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the conflict, but there’s plenty of humor here, too.”
Black Pearl Sings! is based on the real-life story of Harvard folk musicologist John Lomax and the legendary singer and guitarist Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.
Lomax, born two years after the Civil War and a southerner, recorded and published African-American folk songs and advocated for the genre.
Lomax met Ledbetter, a folk and blues guitarist and songwriter with the ambition to make a career in music, at Angola prison in Louisiana where he was serving time.
Lomax later petitioned for Ledbetter’s release. He became his manager when Ledbetter left prison. Lead Belly was known for accompanying his vocals which ranged from prison life and racism to current events and women with a 12-string guitar, piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, accordion and, at times, hand-clapping and foot-stomping.
The play by Frank Higgins, which debuted in 2007, features more than 20 a cappellarenditions of American folk and spiritual songs.