Thursday, September 09, 2010

Black Pearl Sings @ San Jose Rep through Sept. 26

When the set rolled out onto the stage and the door said warden against an audio background of a lovely woman's voice singing a work song, "Down On Me," the kind one hears on the chain gang, I thought the woman standing in the office marked warden was the warden and after it registered that the person in the striped prison issue was a woman, and that this was a woman's prison, well a white woman in the south at a prison for women had to be a warden, right?

Wrong. "Susannah Mullalley" is an opportunist, just like many of the women locked up in southern prisons--opportunists looking for the big break. Jannie Jones's "Alberta 'Pearl' Johnson" and Jessica Wortham's "Susannah" are each other's opportunity, and both are too smart to let the moment pass without exploitation.

Black Pearl Sings is the story of that exploitation. Susannah has been watching positions and promotions pass her up--just because she is a woman. When we meet her she is bitter if and when she allows herself to think about it, which is often. An ethnomusicologist open to seeing the humanity of her subject, whom in this case is Pearl who she genuinely likes, Susannah gradually wipes off the psychological makeup and lets Pearl see her as she really is.

The women swap songs: Susannah's "When I Was Single" for Pearl's "Trouble's So Hard." "Little Sally Walker" is an opportunity for the two women to bond as Pearl insists that Susannah participate. It is here that the character feels the music in her body, the difference one that affects her listening from that moment forward...Pearl helps Susannah see the music as something that lives and lets live.

My favorite songs are Hard Times in Old Virginia, Pay Me My Money Down, Do Lord, Remember Me; Skin and Bone, Keys to the Kingdom, and Six Feet of Earth. I like the staging of Kum Ba Ya. Some of the songs are from Susannah's collection of mountain songs and others from Pearl.

In writing which is humorous and witty and lovely, Frank Higgins's play, Black Pearl is also the story of a friendship between two unlikely persons: an incarcerated black woman in the South at a time when the two communities rarely, if ever, shared their dreams and aspirations, hopes and mistakes. The intersection between women's liberation and black liberation is natural--in this way, Black Pearl is a womanist as much as feminist story.

This story has an epic quality which is natural considering the call to the ancestors heard throughout the work as Susannah digs for gold and finds hints of the shiny matter in Pearl. She never quite strikes the big mine she has been panning for, but the two women, especially Pearl, do quite well.

References to white America's propensity to objectify African American lives the way one collects steer heads or elephant tusks, doesn't pass unnoticed by Pearl when she calls Susannah's attention to the bust of a Congolese man. Nothing escapes Pearl's eye. She often sees what others, like Susannah, miss.

Susannah's work with the Smithsonian is instrumental in Pearl's parole. The two women give speaking and performance tours in New York to help Pearl raise funds to find her daughter. Similar to an Alice Childress's character in the play "Trouble in Mind" (extended through October 3 at the Aurora theatre) who thinks he can write black life for stage better than his cast who live this life off stage as well. Susannah tells Pearl "she knows what the white audience wants;" it doesn't matter if it is stereotypical and buffoonery.

Pearl agrees with Susannah when she says she knows what sells when the consumer is white America, however, she calls her young friend out on her white superiority slips of the tongue. It is refreshing to see how Higgins gave his characters the creative space to develop, change and grow, then witness Jones and Wortham do an excellent job portraying this.

The lesson in Pearl is to know what to share and what to keep close for your family and people.

Pearl is not for sale. There are places in her soul which are not open for public scrutiny or access. At a time when commodification often means: if the price is right, one will get the sale, Pearl says, "No, you can offer me $50,000 and I won't tell you," and Susannah ultimately learns to respect Pearl enough to stop asking.

A highlight in Black Pearl Sings is of course the music. Any fan of Negro Spirituals and folk music will love this play. The idea that black America is still connected to Africa through the cultural retention, namely songs is really powerful. Riggins speaks of how he was inspired to write the play after watching a film, The Language You Cry In. This film, available at California Newsreel, depicts two communities, one is Hilton Head, South Carolina, a place where the Gullah and Geechie dialect can be traced to coastal regions of West Africa--the "Windward Coast" or "Rice Coast." The film traces the ancestry of a woman from Georgia and connects a song she learned as a child to a song another woman in Sierra Leone sings. The song is sung at births and deaths--(program). I had Higgins and Jannie Jones and the artistic director at SJ Rep on Wanda's Picks Radio, Sept. 10. They are the last interview (9-10 AM).

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