For the last three years, "Black Pearl Sings" has been a work in progress, and I'm starting to wonder if it will ever really be done.
Playwright Frank Higgins wrestles with three big differences that have divided Americans for centuries: race, gender and regional attitudes. But he hasn't gotten a firm grip on these topics yet. He has written a wonderful role for the title character and a problematic one for her onstage companion, a powerful set-up in the first act and a variable payoff in the second. The dramatic revelation in the next-to-last scene is clumsy, yet he follows it with a satisfying and subtle resolution.
This two-handed play has been billed as a 50-50 proposition, but Higgins hasn't written it that way. Director Dennis Delamar scrupulously tries to balance the emotional seesaw with his production at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, and actresses Terry Henry-Norman and Stephanie DiPaolo maintain an even rhythm in their give-and-take. But Higgins' writing keeps tipping the play toward Pearl, the more appealing and more interesting woman.
Pearl (Henry-Norman) is a Hilton Head, S.C., native sentenced to a Texas prison during the Depression for killing a man. Musicologist Susannah (DiPaolo) is traveling across the South, listening to women sing pieces songs they learned as girls. She agrees to look for Pearl's missing daughter, and Pearl agrees to unearth every song she can remember, including those taught by slave ancestors. They become friends, and Susannah makes a minor celebrity of Pearl among the New York cognoscenti. The prospect of money, however, doesn't heal all wounds.
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Pearl's earthy wisdom and deep roots draw us to her. But Susannah remains an enigma: We know she wants to be hired by Harvard University and show up a male colleague who took credit for her work, but that's all she seems to want. A great playwright might make us curious about her repressed feelings, until we wanted to tear the character open to see what's inside. Susannah seems more like a ribbon wrapped around an empty box.
Higgins' writing roams all over the stylistic map. Sometimes he composes stinging or clever one-liners; sometimes characters talk like anachronistic bumper stickers from the 1970s; once, Pearl rips off a quote John Lennon apparently originated 30 years later. The plotting is naive at best: Harvard wouldn't have added even Nobel-winner Marie Curie to its all-male staff in the 1930s, and I can't imagine any Texas governor yielding to pressure from New York highbrows and paroling a black murderess 75 years ago. (Or now.)
Yet Higgins often penetrates to the heart of key matters: what it's like for a private person to profit by becoming a public exhibit, how blacks and whites feared and exploited each other (and still do sometimes), what it was like for an able woman to live in the shadow of men who considered her an inferior. When the play is true about these matters, it grabs you.
The actresses face different challenges. Pearl has to be credible both as a Lorena Bobbitt-style avenger and a woman who projects strength and warmth when allowed to be a full human being, and Henry-Norman meets both criteria. (She sings well, too, in a warm alto.)
Susannah is written as a prig, and DiPaolo doesn't play against type. That's a valid choice, but it makes her seem like Miss Gulch taking Dorothy's Toto to be destroyed. Her mother, she says, shared only one piece of wisdom: Say your vowels clearly and clear your bowels daily. Susannah followed only half the advice.
Yet she glows at rare moments, when she sings or plays the autoharp. For Pearl, music is a means to an end: She sings to get out of jail or debt, and only once does a song have a much deeper purpose for her. For Susannah, music frees the spirit; she's metaphorically enslaved by expectations the world places on her, and she forgets those when melody floods her.
Music becomes the way these women of different skin tones and philosophies connect, as it has for so many generations. At its best, "Black Pearl Sings" reminds us why we need that connection so badly.