SKOKIE – In Frank Higgins’ stirring and witty “Black Pearl Sings!” at Northlight Theatre, the two women characters may be worlds apart but they find common ground as well as strength and fulfillment.
This play-with-songs tells a touching story, and even though Higgins changes the gender in his script, it’s loosely based on real-life musicologist John Avery Lomax and guitarist Huddie (“Lead Belly”) Ledbetter.
Director Steve Scott brings together two veteran Chicago area actors – Susie McMonagle and E. Faye Butler – for this triumphal production.
McMonagle plays Susannah Mullally, a competitive ethnomusicologist from the Library of Congress who travels the country capturing a capella renditions of rare folk songs on her bulky recorder so they’re not lost to history. While Susannah has an affinity for these old tunes, she’s also ambitious and sees her research efforts as a possible steppingstone to a position at an Ivy League college.
Butler takes on the role of Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, a feisty black prisoner confined to a Texas jail for the past decade. Her strong, expressive voice, whether she’s singing work songs, a religious spiritual or a ditty she learned as a child from her grandparents, convinces Susannah she has struck gold.
Because of the strong divide between races at the time and the huge socio-economic disparity, the two women must tread carefully to build a trusting relationship. Pearl is wearing a demeaning black-and-white striped convict’s outfit and is shackled with a ball and chain when she first encounters Susannah in the warden’s office.
Eventually Susannah successfully intercedes on Pearl’s behalf for a pardon, and her protégé is released to her custody. Relocating to New York’s Greenwich Village, the two women find that despite turbulent economic times, there’s still an eager, receptive audience for Pearl’s music.
Higgins presents audiences with two intelligent, complex characters. Pearl, grateful for her newfound freedom, works hard to maintain her dignity; she also holds back a “secret” song that she plans one day to share with her descendants. Susannah stirs things up when she thoughtlessly suggests Susannah wear her jailbird outfit while onstage as a reminder of her background; she also instructs her to avoid union ballads as politically incorrect and instead focus on hoodoo (bad luck) songs.
Despite the success of an initial engagement, Pearl continues to struggle with a more personal issue: tracking down a daughter she hasn’t had contact with in 10 years. Susannah helps in this pursuit, but there’s a painful denouement to the story.
Maggie Brown, a jazz vocal artist, served as music consultant for “Black Pearl Sings!” Jack Magaw handled scenic design; Emily McConnell, costuming; Sarah Hughey, lighting; and Christopher Kriz, sound.
What: “Black Pearl Sings!”
Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., in Skokie
When: Through Feb. 19
Show information: www.northlight.org, 847-673-6300