Black Pearl Sings! at Ford's Theatre

Along with undergoing a major building renovation, Ford’s Theatre seems to be renovating their reputation as a house of theatre. Wanting to be more than just a tourist destination, Ford’s is working to find its own spot in the echelon of Washington theatre. Ford’s states that it’s mission is to produce “plays and musicals representative of America’s rich cultural heritage,” which fits at a location forever tied to an event that changed the course of this nation’s history.

Ford’s current production, Black Pearl Sings!, fits nicely into their mission statement, but independently of that, the play works as a piece of theatre, as evidenced by the fact that it is one of the most-produced plays across the nation in this current theatrical season, according to American Theatre Magazine.

Black Pearl Sings! tells the story of Susannah (Erika Rolfsrud), a song-collector for the Library of Congress. It’s the 1930’s and Susannah’s specialty is songs rooted in the African tradition. Her dream is to discover an unknown melody that can be traced all the way back to Africa. She travels to prisons, listening to the songs of incarcerated African American women. There she meets Pearl (Tonya Pinkins), who sings many songs Susannah has never heard before. Susannah helps Pearl achieve pardon, in the belief that Pearl will have that song that goes all the way back to Africa. Pearl must decide whether to share the song of her ancestors’ in order to achieve her freedom.

Black Pearl Sings! is not a musical, it is one of those in between pieces we label as a "play with music". But don’t let that fool you – the music is integral to the enjoyment the play brings. The folk songs, some familiar, some not, are sung with raw emotion by Pinkins. Pinkins is matched by Rolfsrud, who brings pluckiness to her vocals.

The two women are really what make this production work. They have a lovely chemistry, and make the most of the wonderful dry humor found in the script. The script is most interesting when it delves into the history of these folk songs, but tries too hard to set up conflict between the two women. These clashes feel forced onto the characters, rather than occurring naturally. Fortunately the talents of Pinkins and Rolfsrud rise above the weaknesses of the script, resulting in an enjoyable evening.

3 stars
through October 18


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