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Actress and director Lynda Clark celebrates her twenty-fifth anniversary as a Raleigh actress with a beautiful play by Frank Higgins titled Black Pearl Sings! Mounted at Theatre in the Park, which Clark cites as her "home theatre," this two-person show marks the trials of Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, a black woman from depression-era Hilton Head who finds herself incarcerated in a Texas prison. Joining Clark onstage for this role is Raleigh’s incomparable Rozlyn Sorrell.
Susannah Mallaly (Clark) finds Pearl (Sorrell) in a dilapidated prison in southern Texas, where Pearl works on a chain gang draining the nearby swamp. Susannah is a song collector working for the Library of Congress to find and preserve an oral history of songs that may otherwise fall into obscurity. Susannah has brought with her an autoharp and a recording machine to preserve any old songs that might otherwise be lost. She hears Pearl singing outside the warden’s office and immediately asks to see Pearl. It is a rather inauspicious first meeting, but lays the groundwork for what becomes a beautiful friendship.
Pearl is the daughter of a family living on the island of Hilton Head during the early 1930s. She traveled west with a man who liked his liquor, and Pearl is now serving her tenth year in prison for murdering him. Pearl wears prison stripes and a ball and chain. Her mind is a treasure trove for Susannah, who spends the next several weeks recording songs that Pearl grew up singing. For this privilege, Pearl garners Susannah’s aid in attempting to find Pearl’s daughter, Uniqua, who has been lost somewhere in Houston. Pearl has not seen her daughter in ten years; the child was only twelve when Pearl began her sentence.
Pearl trades songs with Susannah, who is passionate about preserving this oral history. The two come to enjoy a budding friendship and share many a song with the audience as Act I progresses. They meet repeatedly in the warden’s office, which is set stage right of the huge space that houses this work. During their time together, Susannah concocts a means of obtaining Pearl’s parole. This is welcome news to Pearl, who wants to travel immediately to Houston to find her daughter. The two only have three days in which to do so, however, because part of the terms of Pearl’s release is that she accompany Susannah back to New York City, where she will be introduced to a high society who, it turns out, loves Pearl’s songs as much as does Susannah.
Act II takes place in New York, in a townhouse where Susannah used to live, and on a stage where Susannah introduces Pearl to her Greenwich Village friends. Pearl wows ‘em, and the two share a triumphal moment, as the concert is a superb hit. During the performance, Pearl and Susannah regale us with live a cappella performances of “Many Thousand Gone” and “Kumbayah.”
Clark serves double duty in this performance, that of leading lady and of director. She also designed the costumes for the show. Clark and Sorrell played off one another superbly, bringing the play to a magnificent climax as word of Pearl’s daughter reaches the two in New York City.
The friendship is not necessarily a smooth one. More than one fight breaks out over what will be included in their touring show and what will be left out. But a bond has grown between these two and it is unshakable. We come to learn what makes these two exceptional women tick, and why their unusual friendship will overcome many a dire obstacle.
Black Pearl Sings! was a dynamically gratifying show, which showcased two exceptional performances by two stunningly creative actresses. Clark and Sorrell were sensational, playing off one another and relating divinely to each other and to us. This was an excellent production, bringing the lives of these two unusual women together in a way that was both tender and treacherous. Black Pearl Sings! is a huge success, and a splendid addition to Theatre in the Park’s season. Check this one out; it will have your toes tapping and your mind humming to these wonderful old songs.
Black Pearl Sings! continues through Sunday, February 22. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.