On Black Pearl Sings

by Erin Greer

A Different World: Depression Era America

Texas: 1935

Hobbling under the weight of the Great Depression, America struggles to gain her footing amid the stumble of economic and social change. Mob rule controls her cities. Isolationism controls her politics. And, in countries across the sea, leaders are rising who will change her position—and the landscape of the world—forever. In six years, the Japanese will land their attack on Pearl Harbor, thus launching the U.S. into the second World War.

But this year—1935—America will be changed by a different Pearl.
This year, through a discovery by researcher Susannah Mullally, the U.S. will rediscover its past…in the songs of Alberta “Pearl” Johnson.

The Story Behind “Black Pearl Sings”

When Library of Congress researcher Susannah Mullally travels to a Texas prison in the 1930s, she does so in search of long-lost folk songs. What she finds, is Alberta “Pearl” Johnson. Johnson, an inmate jailed for murder, possesses the voice of an angel and an arsenal of songs from the past.

To prepare for Pearl, Atlanta actress Minka Wiltz said she researched the role intensely, studying dialects, old photographs and talking with people whose backgrounds mimicked Pearl’s. But when it came time to take the stage, Wiltz said she put the paperwork aside and latched on to the sources of Pearl’s humanity—her faith, her soul and her love for her daughter, whom she is desperately trying to save.

“I wanted her to be as human as possible,” Wiltz said of her portrayal. “She’s just this really stubborn woman with an amazing capacity to care. Not only about her daughter, but about Suzanna.”

“Pearl is someone who has been [wronged] so many times, but she still loves,” Wiltz said. “She still has the capacity to love her people, love her daughter, love Suzanna. It’s an unconditional love, and love conquers all.”

Love may have the capacity to triumph, but the relationship that develops between Pearl and Susannah is fraught with difficulty. The women are separated by issues of race and faith, and each has her own goals to accomplish, in a world where women’s goals are not given high priority. For Susannah, Pearl’s songs mean the chance to receive a lucrative teaching position in the Ivy Leagues; a first for any woman. For Pearl, the songs may be her only chance for freedom—and finding her only daughter.

Cynthia Barrett, who plays Susannah, said this complexity of relationship, coupled with the women’s unified love of song, is what drew her to the piece.

“What I like about their relationship is how complex it is. That drew me in,” Barrett said.
“Just how much they need each other, and how their friendship develops. The ebbs and flows. They go through several shifts in their relationship.”

“I love that the two women use each other, as people do, to get what they want. I loved that it was set in the 30s and that it’s about music. Both of the characters love and live through music,” she said.

Alternately powerful and disturbingly self-serving, the characters’ relationship takes the women from Texas to New York, and from prison cells to performance halls. As the women continue their unusual journey, each learns painful lessons about just how far one will go and what one will sacrifice in pursuit of a goal.

“It’s the power play between the two of them. The give and take. It’s about what they are willing to do and put up with because they really need each other,” Barrett said.

Universal Appeal: The Message of Black Pearl Sings

Written by Frank Higgins and directed by Angela Frye, “Black Pearl Sings” is an exploration of human struggle, perseverance and discovery.

For Wiltz, the show is about faith, hope and history.

“Faith is the best catch-all because when I think about any moment, when I think about any group of people coming together, I think about faith. This is a show about faith and hope,” she said, adding, “I’d like for [the audience to walk away with] the desire to learn more about their history and our collective history as Americans. Knowing one’s history makes for a stronger future.”

For her part, Barrett said she hopes audiences will be drawn to the humor in the show, and focus on the aspects of each character that unite us.

“I think it’s an examination, especially as an American society, of the extent to which we will do things to get what we want. It’s a look at how you deal with people that you need things from,” Barrett said.

“It deals with forgiveness. It also deals with the nature of friendship. You leave the theatre with things to think about,” she said.