Black Pearl Sings!
The dramatic virtues of Black Pearl Sings!, the play by Frank Higgins currently at Ford's Theatre in Washington, center on the mesmerizing performance of Tonya Pinkins as a convict in 1930s Texas who becomes renowned for her knowledge of African-American songs. Pearl is the reason the play exists, and Pinkins is spellbinding in the roleeven aside from her rapturous a cappella renditions of several traditional songs.
The set-up of the drama is rather schematic. An ambitious musicologist, Susannah (Erika Rolfsrud), finds Pearl as she searches for the discovery that will make her academic career. Her fascination with cultures other than her own is sincere, but her questions to Pearl about "your people" come across as patronizing. The two women only forge a partnership when both of them can realize a benefit: Susannah agrees to help Pearl locate her missing daughter, so Pearl agrees to let Susannah record her songs.
The second act moves the action from the isolation of the prison warden's office to the clutter of an apartment in Greenwich Villagea transformation that earns applause for Tony Cisek's scenic design. Suddenly, Pearl's life is a lot more complicated, and Susannah realizes she's losing control of her protégée.
Higgins uses the interplay between the women as a way to explore several issues, such as the nature of authenticity, the question of who owns history and has the right to interpret it, and the different kinds of legacies people leave. It's very tidy and leads to a conclusion that lets the audience feel optimistic.
Director Jennifer L. Nelson gives the play a sensitive, even-handed treatment. Rolfsrud has a somewhat thankless roleunlike Pearl, Susannah has had material comforts and options in her lifebut she manages a sympathetic portrayal of a woman forced to rethink her unquestioned beliefs.
But Pinkins is the heart and soul of the production, and her performance compensates for the shortcomings of the play. She conveys the depth of Pearl's despair and the pride in her heritage that Susannah can't comprehend.