One man came from abject poverty in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. The other was a college professor and perhaps America’s foremost folklorist. When they met, the first man was serving time in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison for killing a white man, while the other was working for the Works Progress Administration.
Those two men were famous bluesman Huddy Ledbetter—better known by his stage name, Lead Belly—and John Lomax, the man who discovered him and helped secure his release from prison. Despite their very different upbringings (and Lomax’s oft-cited paternalism toward Lead Belly) these men connected on some level over a shared love of heartfelt, roots music.
It was a fascination with this “symbiotic relationship” and common love of song that led playwright Frank Higgins to create Black Pearl Sings!, a play premiering at Birmingham Festival Theatre tonight. Featuring Donna Thornton and Nancy Malone in the Lead Belly and Lomax roles—Higgins, like Zora Neale Hurston, believes that folk music was more likely to be passed along unadulterated in a matriarchal society—Black Pearl Sings! is a tender examination of the power of folk songs to unite us.
Black Pearl Sings! has its dramatic core centered on Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Thornton), an imprisoned woman with “a father in Hell, a mother in Heaven, a daughter in Houston” and an appointment to see one of them soon. Ambitious folklorist Susannah Mullally (Malone) discovers Pearl during her search for a piece of folklore that will secure her place in Harvard’s faculty, only to find a more valuable friendship with someone from a totally different world.
Thematically, Higgins is consumed by the question of authenticity. How does a folk song fundamentally change as it’s passed down through the generations? Is it possible to avoid that cultural game of Telephone to get at the beating heart of the music? Can people from such different backgrounds as Lead Belly and Lomax, Pearl and Susannah, really understand one another?
To try and get to the heart of these questions, Black Pearl Sings! uses a careful selection of nearly twenty traditional songs performed a capella in the play. Songs like “Cumbaya” and “Down On Me,” best known from their ‘60s revivals, take on a new life in these vibrant, classic renditions. In the biggest diversion from the Lomax-Lead Belly story, Susannah deeply respects pre-slavery African culture, and she seeks Pearl’s help in discovering a pure, ancient West African song. Higgins says this quest was inspired by the documentary The Language You Cry In, in which a Gullah lullaby passed down through the generations proved to be nearly identical to its Cote d’Ivoire origin.
Black Pearl Sings! has been performed in venues across the country—including places as fraught with racial scars as D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre and a theatre only a block away from the infamous Greensboro Woolworth’s—and Higgins notes that it’s always performed best in cities that have troubled racial histories. The questions of identity and lineage that divide Pearl and Susannah are the same ones that hang heavily over Birmingham even now, and their musical answers make for a cathartic, spiritual experience.
Black Pearl Sings! is directed by Janelle Cochrane. Birmingham Festival Theatre has produced dramas in Five Points South since 1972. It is located at 1901 11th Avenue South, upstairs above Golden Temple Café. The production runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, September 13-29, with a Sunday matinee on the 23rd. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Adults $20; students $10. For reservations and information on specials, call (205) 933-2383.