Thursday, February 7, 2013
Theater review: Actresses of Black Pearl Sings enchant audiences with raw emotion
It's a timeless story of social prejudices and one women's effort to preserve history.
FORT WORTH Susannah Mullally’s job is to preserve the songs of the past for the U.S. Library of Congress, a job she has a passion and drive for. This motivation leads Susannah to a women’s prison where she discovers an inmate who just happens to be a human musical encyclopedia of historical African American slave songs.
Jubilee Theatre’s Black Pearl Sings is a wonderful duet play that leaves the audience laughing and tapping their toes to the soulful songs performed beautifully by both actresses. The duo carries the show effortlessly while keeping the audience engaged and entertained throughout.
Susannah Mullally, played by actress Lana K. Hoover, has been sent to Texas by the Library of Congress, during the late 1920s, to find old slavery songs that are to be recorded and preserved at the library forever. The holy grail of her career, however, would be to find a song that dates back to when the slaves were first coming over from Africa. The idea is to capture something sung on the slave trade boats. Miss Mullally’s search leads her to the Texas Women’s Prison where she stumbles onto Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, played by actress Liz Mikel. Pearl reluctantly agrees to assist Susannah in recording the songs she wants, at a price. In exchange for helping her, Susannah must agree to help Pearl find her long lost daughter. Susannah agrees to help Pearl and soon after their agreement, the two begin recording songs.
The play has quite a few intriguingly comedic moments. A personal favorite was when Pearl teaches Susannah how to move her hips. Being that the two women are more mature, this makes for quite the knee-slapper. One of the more interesting facets of the show is how it tackles some of more serious issues of the Depression era that also mirror some elements of life today. Racial issues and women’s rights to work equally with men were among the social topics covered.
Upon being escorted to my seat I was drawn to the highly accessible stage. The stage for Black Pearl Sings is tight, yet maintains a set design of great ingenuity. The somewhat intimate theater space doesn’t appear to be an issue at all. The basic layout of the set is a back wall with windows peering into the jail hallway and two doors stage right and left respectively. Set Designer Michael Skinner chose to further compliment the atmosphere by adding and subtracting a few set pieces. This enabled the stage to become the warden’s office and also doubled as a New York apartment.
The top of the show opens and immediately the eye is drawn to the iron bars across each window signifying a sense of “place.” The room is an orderly office complete with a desk and filing cabinet. Everything about it shouts bland and basic, the perfect setting for an office in a tough-walled prison. The mood and atmosphere is dramatically altered after intermission when we find our recording duo in an upscale New York apartment. The apartment is accented with a flurry of decorative tribal masks lining the wall. The furniture is lavish and the windows now fashionable stained glass. The designer does a great job making the two settings have a completely different mood by putting them on different ends of the spectrum. A true treat for the theatre goer.
Lighting Designer Nikke Deshea Smith also does a great job in setting the mood throughout the show. They do this through their use of gobos and careful selection of lighting colors. The lighting helps create the atmosphere at the start of the show by having a blue light project on a scrim behind the windows. It gives the stage an eerie feeling, watching Pearl’s silhouette step out into the blue light behind the prison bar windows, singing for Susannah to hear her. At other times the main lights dim down and a spot light comes up on Pearl, highlighting her as she sings a heart-wrenching song to the audience. One of the best lighting moments is when the set goes dark and spots come up on both Pearl and Susannah as the perform. The lighting creates the whole set for this scene and Smith does a great job making the audience feel like they are actually watching Pearl at Carnegie Hall.
Each song of Black Pearl Sings is performed with great energy. One of the best numbers of the night is also the most energetic. “Little Sally Walker,” started by Pearl with Susannah joining in later, keeps the audience laughing and engaged. Pearl tries to teach Susannah the song while at the same time teaching Susannah how to “move her hips.” You can really tell the personal bond these two actresses share on stage. The scene turns to hilarity as their differences in dancing ability and singing style increase with the tempo each time they sing the song. Pearl herself has singing in her soul; a recognizable trait in Mikel’s performance. She even sings as she goes through a hangover after her first performance at Carnegie. One of the most touching songs is when Pearl finally sings a tribal song to the audience. It was done a-cappella and Mikel’s enchanting voice kept the audience completely silent throughout the whole piece.
The acting done in Black Pearl Sings is top notch. It can be hard to keep an audience captivated with only two characters but these women pull it off well. Their quick-witted conversation and comedic banter keep the audience laughing. Each actress embodies their character. Hoover’s portrayal of an academic woman ahead of her time made for a wonderful contrast to Mikel’s church-loving, devoted mother character. Despite the contrast, the two actress’ chemistry is what keeps the quick pace and brings about a memorable show.
Overall I feel this show teaches a timeless lesson that all age groups can benefit from. It is always a joy to see talented actors sharing real bonds and in turn sharing that with the audience. Director Akin Babatunde did a great job in terms of production value and quality of performance. The artistic direction in tandem with creative design and quality acting makes Black Pearl Sings a sure way to spend your afternoon or evening.
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