Black Pearl Sings and touches on difficult issuesby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A new play at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul explores the relationship between an academic collecting slave songs, and a woman prisoner who claims to have the songs the researcher needs.
"Black Pearl Sings" involves just two performers, but it touches on many uncomfortable issues.
It's the 1930s and a researcher named Susannah is in a Texas prison, looking for songs. She's introduced to Pearl, an inmate who makes it clear from the start what she wants.
"How 'bout some money?" she demands.
"Song first," the researcher replies curtly.
"We call this 'Little Sally Walker," says Pearl.
"I've got it," comes the gruff reply.
"There's different 'Sally Walkers.' How's yours go?"
The researcher sings, but gets a dismissive response from Pearl.
"Bad! You got to let your body flow," she says. "So let me see you flow."
"Hard to flow with a ball and chain."
"Try," the researcher says icily.
"They begin this relationship has a mutual kind of competing agendas," said Lou Bellamy, the Penumbra founder is directing the play. "Susannah wants to get the music and Pearl wants to get out of prison."
But as Crystal Fox, who plays Pearl, and Stacia Rice who plays Susannah have found out, the play touches many deeper things. There's friendship, race, gender, class, and not least the significance and ownership of old songs.
Pearl is desperate to find out what has happened to her daughter with whom she has lost touch and Susannah's been cheated out of a job in academia because of her gender. As Rice explains, finding an undiscovered slave song for the Library of Congress will get Susannah an Ivy League position.
"She doesn't want to work as a clerk and she doesn't want to get married," Rice said. "And so her main agenda is to survive, and I think that speaks to both of these women."
They bond over songs, like Little Sally Walker.
"And Pearl does know a song that pre-dates slavery," Bellamy said. "And it's about whether or not she'll share it and at what price it might go for."
Pearl says when she sings it, she has a certain guy in mind. The steaminess of Pearl's rendition both shocks and intrigues Susannah.
"That shaking is nice," she stammers. "Can I see that again?"
"Can I see 50 cents?" Pearl replies.
As the play progresses, the two women learn more about each other's very different lives, and about the different way they see the world. Crystal Fox said, as actors she and Rice have been going through a similar process as they explore their characters.
"There may be different things we are going after, and both end up surprising each other by what we get out of it," Fox said.
Director Lou Bellamy said it's not been easy for the performers, nor for him to deal with the issues which come up in Frank Higgins' script. However he stresses that at its core this is a story about friendship.
"They cry and laugh, and fight, and I mean it's better than wrestling," he said.
"Black Pearl Sings" is now in previews and opens Thursday night at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. Crystal Fox, Stacia Rice and Lou Bellamy hope the play passes on a message of the strength to be found in recognizing differences.
"The cliche of course is 'disagree without being disagreeable'" he said.
Fox and Rice howl with laughter.
"But you actually see these women get past all that stuff to share human feelings, and so forth. It's uplifting," Bellamy said.
"I think I've got it," says Susannah, a little smugly.
"Oh no, ma'am," Pearl laughs. "I can tell, you ain't never danced nasty."
"Sing it again," Susannah commands, the anger rising in her voice.
Pearl begins to sing and sway, and gradually Susannah finds her voice and joins in.
"Better!" declares Pearl as they finish. "Dance like that in public they are going to throw you in jail!"
- Morning Edition, 02/17/2010, 7:52 a.m.