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How does music pull at the heartstrings?

I had a brief bout of hesitation before going to see Black Pearl Sings! – A two woman show, mostly songs, political themes. I wasn’t sure how it would go. Well, you wanna know how it went? Absolutely fantastically perfect. I really couldn’t have asked for more out of a dramedy musical- hope, pain, fears, prejudice, humor, laughter, music, sharp tongued women. It was truly a delightful surprise.

Susannah is a song collector for the Library of Congress. She travels across the US looking for authentic, little known songs. She seems to be especially drawn to African American ditties that perhaps go all the way back to Africa. She’s looking for music with ROOTS and she won’t stop until she finds it. Her passion is music. She’s educated, upper class, out spoken and goal-oriented. She doesn’t want to get married and isn’t fazed by the colour of people’s skin. That’s pretty impressive for a lady in the 1930’s.

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During one of her musical searches, she comes upon Pearl, played byTony award winner Tonya Pinkins, in a Texas prison. Pearls captivating voice instantly captures Susannah. But its not only her voice, Pearl seems to have an uncanny knowledge of old songs. Susannah works out a deal for Pearl to leave prison and go on parole. This is strictly based on the premise that Pearl will share her music through the guardianship of Susannah in New York city. The women begin a tumultuous relationship. Susannah searching for the one perfect long forgotten song. Pearl searching for her not forgotten daughter she left behind.

What ensues is a heartfelt story full of hilarious one-liners and beautifully sung songs. “The media? That’s the last resort for the semi talented” “Bohemians? They don’t have jobs!” Susannah quips. Just one of her many jabs at various societal stereotypes. Although, in essence this performance is about stereotypes, racism and sexism. Playwright Frank Higgins creates a rich and colourful atmosphere with the songs he chose to be performed by both women. From the sexually suggested dance of ” Ride Sally, Ride’ to the well known Christian songs ” This little light of mine” to the extremely sad (and remixed by Moby song) ” Trouble so hard”, you truly feel the music carry the play on.

Tonya Pinkins’ Pearl is a strong willed character with one weakness- love for her daughter. Pinkins exudes sensuality (hard to do when you are wearing jail clothes), warmness and love but also a dark underside with violence and desperation. So what if she killed her ex husband ( I think he deserved it)? You grow to love her and ultimately hope that everything works out for her. She’s caught up in a whirlwind success once her songs go public in New York. But is she being used? Pinkins not only entertained us with her deep and beautiful voice but, at one point, had the whole audience singing along to her performance! She was truly a delight to watch.

I had more trouble cozying up to Erika Rolsfrud’s character – not due to any lack of talent on her part!- simply because she seemed like she was exploiting Pearl. And she was in a way. She needed Pearls song to secure that Harvard teaching position. But you begin to feel a bit sorry for her as well. If you think women have it hard now, try living back then. Rolsfrud did an amazing job of wrapping up a severely insecure and anxious individual in the guise of a dynamic and modern women.

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Black Pearl sings is based on the real life relationship between signer and guitarist Huddie Ledbetter ( Leadbelly) and musicologist John Lomax. Leadbelly provided hundreds of valuable folk songs for Lomax during his time in and out of prison. Sadly, their relationship ended when Leadbelly drew a knife at Lomax. Higgins rewrote and remixed this scenario , adding another dimension to the story making the two main characters women.

Playwright Frank Higgins twist leaves the audience with a lot to think about. Did women have to go to such lengths to succeed? What makes a song authentic? Was Pearl being manipulated? Was Pearl a success because African American songs were ‘exotic’ with the bohemian crowd? How does this affect the music we listen to now? Is Pearl a door to the past?

For more information visit Ford’s Theater at: http://www.fordstheatre.org/event/black-pearl-sings#

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