A 'Pearl' in the Rough
Tonya Pinkins Shines in a Rocky Ford's Production

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

If "Black Pearl Sings!" is more educational than theatrical, at least it can offer a lesson in the resonant gifts of Tonya Pinkins, whose a capella delivery of an evening's worth of spirituals fills Ford's Theatre with achingly mournful melody.

The actress earned rapturous notices on Broadway for her performance a few years back as the sullen housekeeper in the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical, "Caroline, or Change." Here at Ford's, she is playing another poor Southern woman of thwarted aims: Alberta Johnson, known as Pearl, who is in a Texas penitentiary for maiming an abusive man.

The fictional title character in Frank Higgins's play -- about the efforts of a Depression-era Library of Congress researcher to record Pearl's singing -- is more prosaically drawn than the woman of more scalding bitterness Pinkins portrayed in "Caroline." By virtue of the stoic dignity the actress manages to convey, however, she creates in Pearl a figure not only to be reckoned with, but also one whose suffering we want to comprehend.

Higgins doesn't make a depth of communion easy. The dramatic terrain of "Black Pearl Sings!" is as flat as the Plains, consisting of a series of scenes in which Erika Rolfsrud's Susannah, the researcher from Washington, first attempts to coax music out of Pearl and, later, after she gets her sprung from prison, to launch Pearl on a concert tour.

The effort to construct parallel stakes for the two characters doesn't achieve the desired impact. Plucky Susannah has been betrayed by a male supervisor on a previous mission to collect indigenous folk music by falsely claiming credit for her work. So Pearl is Susannah's ticket to academic revenge and, she hopes, a job as the first female professor at Harvard.

But Pearl's more acute pain -- her adult daughter has disappeared while Pearl has been in prison, where she's forced to work on a chain gang, clearing a leech-filled Texas swamp -- makes Susannah and her troubles seem trivial, in ways that diminish one's investment in whatever bond the women might share. It may be Higgins's point that the well-intentioned Susannah cannot see completely beyond her own goals and that the chasm between white and black women of the time is not entirely bridgeable. It's just that in director Jennifer L. Nelson's workmanlike production, the dynamism of this notion never fully takes root.

The more galvanizing part of the evening originates in Pinkins's lungs. The device of a researcher tracing vocal artifacts back to slavery and the Middle Passage gives "Black Pearl Sings!" the opportunity to have Pinkins sing, and often. (Rolfsrud sings occasionally, too.) In songs like "Hard Times in Old Virginia" and "Do Lord Remember Me," she conjures something akin to an exquisite agony, the sense of a trapped people finding ways to transform unfathomable pain into beauty.

Rolfsrud has the unenviable task of trying to balance the sour and sweeter aspects of Susannah's nature; it remains a cold performance. But Dan Covey's lighting and Tony Cisek's set -- especially of the Greenwich Village apartment Pearl and Susannah inhabit for Pearl's debut -- infuse the evening with some needed visual warmth.

Ford's audiences may treat the time spent with Pearl and her music as a useful primer on an important aspect of American history and culture. As Susannah says, Pearl is a doorway to the past. And Pinkins asserts herself with stirring vocal authority at the threshold.

Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins. Sound, Veronika Vorel; music direction, William Hubbard. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Oct. 18 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 202-347-4833 or visit http://www.fords.org.

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