‘Black Pearl Sings’ at MetroStage crosses racial boundaries in segregated South

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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Chris Banks)

Sandra L. Holloway’s searing production of “Black Pearl Sings,” now playing at MetroStage, opens to the haunting music of a black chain gang singing in cadence as they swing their pickaxes to the dirge-like rhythm.

This indelible, spine-tingling chant leads us to Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, who has spent 10 miserable years in a swamp-surrounded prison in southeast Texas for the murder of her abusive husband. The story is inspired by folklorist John Lomax’s real life discovery of legendary folk singer and guitarist Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.

In this telling, Johnson is discovered by Susannah Mullally, an ambitious white ethnomusicologist employed by the Library of Congress to uncover America’s earliest indigenous music and its African roots. “You are a doorway to our past,” Susannah pleads.

Playwright Frank Higgins, whose previous work has starred such notable actresses as Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, gives pathos and humor to this sensitive portrait of a woman hardened by a segregationist South and the destructive men in her life.

At first, Susannah’s attempts to coax the old plantation songs out of Johnson are met with a steely rebuke. But eventually, after a considerable period of enmity and suspicion and Susannah’s description of the suppression of her country’s Gaelic language, the two women form a partnership that results in Susannah gaining Pearl’s freedom, hard-fought trust and a wealth of songs.

Twenty memorable American folk songs and spirituals weave in and out of this musical, performed entirely a capella by Roz White’s sinuous contralto, Teresa Castracane’s lilting Irish mezzosoprano and led by legendary musical director William Hubbard.

Their shared struggles — Pearl’s to earn enough money to track down her long lost daughter and Susannah’s seeking success as a woman in a man’s world — eventually bring the women together, culminating in a heartwrenching duet rendition of “Six Feet of Earth” at the end of the second act.

Other numbers familiar to many of us are “Down on Me,” later made famous by Janis Joplin, “This Little Light of Mine,” the gospel favorite “Do Lord, Remember Me,” the sultry “Don’t You Feel My Leg” and universal peace anthem “Kum Ba Yah.”

There are many funny bits, but one that gets knowing laughter is when Pearl makes reference to her birth home on the Gullah island of Hilton Head, which was a desolate island off the coast of South Carolina populated by the descendants of African slaves.

After hearing a developer recount his vision of a golf course and condos on the tiny island, she decides to use it as motivation to follow Susannah’s vision for her success. It’s knowing how that turned out that resonates with us.

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