(Gretta Russe and Chelsea Love Hunt, left to right) by Melanie Arden

“Black Pearl Sings,” a unique drama/comedy filled with songs


Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre Review

ABET opened “Black Pearl Sings,” a unique drama/comedy filled with songs, on November 30, 2015, which will continue through November 15 at their Atlantic Beach Theatre. For additional information and reservations, call 904-249-7177 or visit abettheatre.com.

The Dual Critics are always thrilled to review a play which is not only great entertainment but is educational as well. We had seen this play in 2009 while on a weeklong trip to Sarasota, Florida; we saw several plays during this time, and considered “Black Pearl Sings” the best.

The play takes the audience back to Depression era of the thirties, and is based on a historical happening. Ethnomusicologist John Lomax was commissioned by the Library of Congress to record songs of the rural South as a way to preserve the music of America’s roots. In a state prison, he found an impressive singer and guitarist, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, an incarcerated African-American. Lomax recorded Lead Belly’s songs for the Library’s archives, and later helped him obtain a parole. After his release, he became Lomax’s driver and assistant, helping him make recordings, and appearing with him during a series of lectures. After several months, they parted ways, and Lead Belly went on to become a successful musician.

Playwright Frank Higgins based “Black Pearl Sings” on the experiences of Lomax and Lead Belly, but since he was interested to women’s issues, recast his characters as women.

Act One takes place at a women’s prison farm in Texas in 1933. Susannah Mullally (Gretta Russe) is a musicologist working for the Library of Congress. She is struggling with career issues, as she, like many other women in the thirties and for decades afterward, had been denied a promotion to a position for which she was qualified; the position she hoped for was given to a male colleague.

She is gathering songs, and, hoping to discover important historical material that will help her with her goal of becoming a professor at a prestigious university, has come to the prison to search for pre-slave and slave songs. She overhears the marvelous voice of Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Chelsea Love Hunt) and approaches her about being recorded. Pearl knows a treasure chest of songs, including some very old melodies, perhaps of African origin, but she is reluctant to share her songs and talent freely, as she has another agenda. She wants to find her twenty-two year old daughter, whom she not seen for many years, and she wants Susannah to help her.

As Susannah and Pearl engage in verbal sparring while they try to reach agreement, Pearl bestows stunning examples of a cappella spirituals. The only musical accompaniment you will hear is when she uses a knife and a set of keys to beat out the rhythm of one of her songs. Chelsea Hunt has appeared in a number of musical and dramatic roles locally, which have included Dorothy in “The Wiz,” Celie in “The Color Purple,” and Ruth in “A Raisin in the Sun” at Stage Aurora. We also recall seeing her as Delia and Missie Mae in “Spunk” with The 5 & Dime Theatre.

Gretta Russe as Susannah sings as well and also has a lovely voice. Her recent stage appearances in this area were in “The Savannah Disruption,” “The Trojan Women,” and “The Tale of The Allergist’s Wife.” Gretta has an impressive musical theatre resume which includes appearances as Mother Superior in “Nunsense,” Desirée in “A Little Night Music,” and Guinevere in “Camelot.”

Susannah and Pearl eventually come to terms, with Susannah arranging for a parole for Pearl and agreeing to help her search for her daughter. Pearl in turn agrees to continue recording the cherished songs she learned from her family and her church and also agrees to travel with Susannah to New York.

Act Two takes place in a Greenwich Village apartment in1934, before and after Pearl’s heralded performance at Cooper Union. As in the first act, the two ladies have some conflicts to resolve, but no spoilers here. There is also some wonderful music from both singers and a conclusion that will satisfy everyone.

You may have noted that we called this a drama/comedy and indeed we were surprised at the humor in this play. During conversations characterized by razor-sharp repartee, Pearl lightens grim subjects with ironic observations, as she provides details about the crime that led to her incarceration, and the long hours of labor in the swamps while working as a member of a chain gang.

The play was directed by Celia Frank, ABET’s Artistic Director. The play was originally scheduled several months ago, but due to unforeseen circumstances was cancelled and rescheduled. Caryl Butterley, ABET’s Web Designer and Social Media Director, was the original director, and in the program, Director Frank expressed her gratitude to Ms. Butterely for her contributions to the production during the original rehearsals.

Jennifer Fortune’s set designs for both acts were excellent. The prison scene had a gray institutional wall and a chair to the right. Susannah’s work desk had a large heavy tape recorder on top and was flanked by a Texas flag on one side and a Confederate flag on the other. The New York apartment in the second act reflected the Greenwich Village way of life and included art works and a vintage telephone and radio. Amy Tillotson’s costume designs included both striped prison attire and dressy clothing that reflected the period.

What a wonderful and unique musical. The songs are haunting at times, hilarious at others, and most certainly historical with a mystic note of communication and understanding. The impressive performances by Ms. Hunt and Ms. Russe are not to be missed. Their voices are warm and rich, and their performances true to the playwright’s intent.

The Production Team includes Celia Frank (Director), Debra Harvey (Stage Manager), Melanie Arden (Assistant Stage Manager), Light Board Operator (Andrew McCraney), Lighting Design (Bryan Frank), Sound Design (Caryl Butterley, Bryan Frank), Properties (Ashley Macko, Caryl Butterley), Lighting Crew (Gordon Frank).

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.