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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Powerful crooning drowns out Black Pearl Sings' hackneyed plotting

Music, murder and a women’s prison — Horizon Theatre’s Black Pearl Sings begins from such a compelling premise, it’s surprising that the action proves so unnecessarily complicated. In a women’s prison farm in southeast Texas, circa 1935, a white musicologist named Susannah (Cynthia Barrett) repeatedly meets with an African-American musicologist called Pearl (Minka Wiltz). Susannah stakes her career on the “discovery” and preservation of folk songs for the Library of Congress, so Pearl wonders how to leverage her wealth of musical knowledge to the greatest possible benefit.

A dingy prison office thus becomes a venue for the two women to swap songs and stories. Susannah demonstrates songs from Irish immigrants and other white traditions, while Susannah belts out bluesy anthems of suffering as well as “nasty” numbers like “Sally Walker.” While Susannah confesses to the glass ceiling for female academics in the 1930s, Pearl describes the harsh treatment in the prison system.

Such intriguing, contrasting characters provide more than enough raw material for a drama leavened with humor, but playwright Frank Higgins can’t seem to leave well enough alone. He piles on more motivations and contrivances than the action needs. Susannah, for instance, sounds almost like Captain Ahab when she repeatedly expresses her desire to find a song that predates slavery. (Guess who just might know one?) At times, Black Pearl Sings proves far too conscious of its contemporary audience. The writing winks to the audience when one of the women mentions Pearl’s then-obscure and impoverished island home, Hilton Head. Higgins proves too clever by half when Pearl envisions golf courses erected on the resort of the future.

It’s no stretch to envision a 1930s movie actress like Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn delivering Susannah’s peppery lines. Barrett movingly evokes Susannah’s most wrenching feelings, but frequently seems too contemporary, like a modern-day campus feminist dropped more than a century in the past. Wiltz, meanwhile, initially projects a girlish energy that seems out of place for a woman who’s spent 10 years doing hard labor. Nevertheless, the actress’ rolling intonations give her many musical solos and almost earth-shaking force — we believe Pearl lived the life captured in “Trouble So Hard” and other spirituals. Wiltz belts a thrilling, revelatory rendition of “Kum Ba Yah.”

When Susannah speaks of the obsession that privileged bohemians have with the “authentic” lives of people like Pearl, Pearl replies, “Ain’t your life authentic?” The irony is that in Horizon’s Black Pearl Sings, the so-called homicidal harmonizer comes across as more authentic and credible woman.

Black Pearl Sings Through April 26. Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. 404-584-7450. www.horizontheatre.com.

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