Black Pearl Sings! at Ford's Theatre

Freedom is just a zombie away. So says Pearl Johnson in the first act of Ford Theatre's production of Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins. At the time, she is in prison, speaking to Susannah, who is an academic searching for songs of the South. She especially wants songs from slaves, the children of slaves and her Holy Grail would be a song directly from Africa. If she had that, she thinks she can get a job at an Ivy League college. Susannah becomes friends with Pearl, and manages to get parole for Pearl. While Pearl wants to go to Houston to find her daughter, Susannah convinces her to go to New York City to do shows. New York embraces her, but Pearl never reveals her true secret to Susannah.

A two-person show is hard to do. However, both actresses do a beautiful job of carrying the two-hour performance. Broadway veteran and Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins is captivating as Pearl Johnson. Her voice takes the audience back to the Southern fields of cotton, watching the slaves doing their back-breaking work in the sun. Even with that powerhouse on stage, Erika Rolfsrud holds her own as Susannah. She also has a lovely voice, and the duets she has with Pinkins are some of the moments I enjoyed most. The two women have points of view that are incredibly different, but the script is really well-written. During their arguments, I could understand both sides, which does not always happen. Many times, the playwright believes that they are correct and do not try to argue both sides of a point; Higgins manages to avoid this. Both women make compelling points to their cause. The script is also very funny, even telling a pretty serious story. Pearl is blunt and has no trouble speaking her mind, which makes for some moments of hilarity.

The first act of the play takes place in a jail in southeast Texas. It is 1935, and Susannah has just found Pearl. The stage is practically bare, with a lovely backdrop of a bleak jail. There is a table and chair and that's it. This is where Susannah begins her friendship with Pearl, and where Pearl begins recording her songs for Susannah. Pearl is dressed in a tattered black-and-white striped dress and work boots. Her hair is messy and fly-away. In a stark contrast, Susannah is first seen dressed in a crisp pink dress; she's always very put together. After the parole is granted, the setting moves to a small apartment in the very bohemian Greenwich Village. Here, there are knick-knacks everywhere, scattered among plush furniture and objets d'art. This includes an African head, which prompts Pearl to ask if African people have white people's heads in their houses as art.

I would recommend going to see the show; it is certainly a couple of hours of good, solid entertainment. It's worth seeing Tonya Pinkins.

Black Pearl Sings!
by Frank Higgins
Ford's Theatre
511 10th St, NW
playing through October 18


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