Review: Penumbra Hits the Right Notes in “Black Pearl Sings!”

Starting in the Great Depression (the other one) and continuing through the 1960s, the Library of Congress dispatched musicologists, folklorists, and other academics to the Deep South in search of “authentic” music, the older the better, lest it disappear in the increasingly homogeneous babble of progress. They found it all right, in the person of singing sharecroppers and guitar-toting prisoners, as in the case of Leadbelly, the inspiration for Black Pearl Sings!, a beautifully thought-provoking quasi-musical playing at Penumbra Theatre in St Paul through March 14. With two richly talented actresses and a dozen musical gems, Penumbra invokes centuries of cultural collision, in all its hurt, humor, and humanity.

The two-person play imagines a female Leadbelly stand-in nicknamed Pearl, embodied here with surefooted conviction—even when the lines are scarcely meaty enough to support it—by visiting actress Crystal Fox, whose credits elsewhere run the gamut of August Wilson plays and television, including a stint on In the Heat of the Night. Stacia Rice, surely the comeliest agent the Library of Congress ever sent South, wrings much comedy out of her role as Susannah (as in “Oh,” a folkie’s insider joke), the starchy foil to Fox’s earthy singer.

The first act sets up the conflict in a few broad strokes: Rice wants songs, Pearl wants release from prison, in order to reunite with her long-lost daughter. The women carry their baggage around the story a little too obviously—Pearl’s dragging a ball and chain, no less. But the conflict itself couldn’t be richer, opening a big window onto the long history of well-meaning white folks seeking, finding, and validating—or is it exploiting?—the talents of the oppressed. In the case of music collectors, the singers—mostly black, poor, and preternaturally suspicious of carpetbagging whites (even if their bags toted recording equipment)—were dragged out of their Southern shacks and cotton fields and trotted before Ivy League academics and the self-righteous bohemians of New York. By all accounts, the admiration was appreciated if somewhat bewildering. But in selling to Susannah her inherited culture—which Susannah scarcely understands in its context—is Pearl also selling her soul?

The play gets stronger as it rolls along, punctuated by Fox’s heartfelt and virtuosic renditions of spirituals and work songs. In fact, Rice and Fox seem to challenge each other, as their characters grow closer in the story, to push through their roles’ cliches into the deeper soil of two women caught up in history. This is director and Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy’s will at work, too. In his third and now fourth decade leading the African-American theater, Bellamy has been primarily interested in opening dialogues and igniting conversations—sometimes between cultures, sometimes within—from such touchy topics as black-on-black prejudice to the oft-blurred boundaries between cultural appreciation and exploitation. Bellamy is a genius at locating, even in the most seemingly simple plots, the gray matter between black and white and applying a gentle yet powerful dramatic touch to pull apart the cliches and conventional wisdom, exposing the raw humanity at the quivering heart of all cultural experience. The climax of Black Pearl Sings! showcases this touch as surely as any other play Bellamy has directed.