Sunday, May 20, 2012

Black Pearl Sings: Must see

This afternoon Mike and I went to see "Black Pearl Sings" at Portland Center Stage, and we both found it to be a profoundly moving experience. Our season package is for the large mainstage productions, but we swapped out the Christmas play for this one in the smaller, more intimate Ellen Bye Theater in the basement because I was immediately attracted to the plot. (Mike likes seeing plays in this theater because the subscribers get to select their general admission seats's his British snobbiness coming into play!)

"Black Pearl Sings" is loosely inspired by the friendship between Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, and the great musicologist John Lomax. It's the story of Texas prison inmate Alberta "Pearl" Johnson, and Susannah Mullally, a music folklorist for the Library of Congress, who is a white intellectual from a wealthy New York family. Susannah is on a quest to find lost songs, and for this she seeks treasures in women's prisons in the south.

Susannah and Pearl form a tenuous friendship as they explore music together during the heart of the Depression. I found this timing in my life especially meaningful as I'm reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, another story of friendship between an African-American woman and a young white woman (who wants to write her mother's story). Both Susannah and Rebecca Skloot (author of Henrietta Lacks' story) were to gain something from their partnerships, but also were completely unlike other white women of their class. Gradually, they built a trusting relationship with two African-American women who had absolutely no reason to trust anyone white.

Both Lena Kaminsky (Susannah) and Chavez Ravine (Pearl) have beautiful voices and portrayed their parts with great sensitivity and perfect timing. Susannah can be irritating but is clearly wounded as the shrill academic, just as Pearl is angry and suspicious of her intentions, but tender underneath.

Portland's two major newspapers, the Oregonian and the Willamette Week, differed widely in their reviews of this play, showing how different tastes can be. Willamette Week's Ben Waterhouse didn't think of playwright Frank Higgins' choice to change the story from men to women and does not seem to think much of the actual play (he preferred the singing):
"...Higgins, who apparently didn’t think the tensions of race and class were sufficiently complex, throws sex in the mix as well...We don’t need Pearl to wonder aloud if she should trust Mullally with he song her ancestors brought from Africa—we just need her to sing it. Mullally shouldn’t tell us how the sexist snobbery of her male peers makes her feel. Kaminsky’s taut shoulders and weary eyes say it all. Higgins’ insistence on telling made me feel like I was in kindergarten. Pearl should sing more, and talk a lot less."
while the Oregonian's Holly Johnson noted:
"As the play progresses, both of their faces become softer, more open, and in fact, more lovely. Kaminsky's Susannah, a feminist through and through, shines as she sings a cappella the Gaelic folk songs learned from her family's cook. Ravine radiates a giddy joy as Pearl performs her songs for an audience the first time...Higgins' idea to make the characters female actually works better on various levels. Susannah has her own battles to fight in a world dominated by white males, while Pearl's unending battles in that same world are larger and more clearly defined."

Makes me wonder whether their differing views could be based in the fact that they are of different genders? Many men seem to prefer stories about men and music by men. I've been on my teenager's case lately that nearly all of the music on his iPod is by male artists. Maybe Waterhouse couldn't get over the fact that Higgins changed the genders of the characters, but for me, it worked perfectly. In general, women are more likely to speak from the depths of their souls and attempt to connect with each other, and as it was, these women had a long chasm to stretch across.

If you love music, history, or unlikely friendships, I highly recommend "Black Pearl Sings." Out of all the plays we've seen at Portland Center Stage this year, it's been our favorite.

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