Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Song of the South (and the North, too)

Scenes from Black Pearl Sings! at the Merrimack Rep.

In days of yore, when fading stars of stage and screen needed steady work, they often turned to the theatrical form known as the "vehicle" - the script tailored precisely to the profile of a specific actor or actress. Of course "vehicles" still exist (A Bronx Tale, anyone?), but these days concepts or songs have often take the place of the star in the driver's seat. The 'virtual' vehicle - the show driven by its political stance (Avenue Q) or musical style (Jersey Boys) - has become the most common variant of the species.

Black Pearl Sings!, the new play by Frank Higgins now at the Merrimack Rep, is just this kind of machine - it basically takes African-American spirituals out for a feel-good theatrical spin. And for its first half or so, the script's dramatic mechanics, though obvious, work fairly well. In the second half, alas, the wheels fall off the chassis - but at least this happens for interesting reasons.

Author Higgins has basically taken a page from history - the "discovery" of "Leadbelly" (Huddie William Ledbetter) in a Southern prison by musicologists John and Alan Lomax in 1933 - then tried to turn it into a Hallmark card. He has changed the genders of his protagonists, and made a joke of the crime that sent Leadbelly to jail (Leadbelly had knifed a white man - he'd also earlier killed a relative - while Higgins's "Black Pearl" is doing time for cutting her husband's "pecker" off, which these days counts as a laugh line). The playwright has also modeled his heroine as a singer rather than an original songwriter, which makes her more malleable as a symbol than the flawed, fiery Leadbelly.

There's a method behind all these choices, of course - Higgins is interested in archetypes (or maybe stereotypes) because he has in mind not an individualized drama, but a celebration of the spiritual, and a political critique of the white appreciation of it as well. But while this is certainly an intriguing premise, it's also a challenging one, and Higgins doesn't seem quite up to the dramatic task he has set himself.

The playwright limits himself to just two characters, the imprisoned "Pearl," (Cherene Snow) and her discoverer, "Susannah," (Valerie Leonard), a Library of Congress investigator bent on finding an unknown song that "dates to before slave times." And he duly works up a set of conflicting motives for their uneasy cooperation: Susannah sees in Pearl her ticket to a prominent post at Harvard; Pearl sees in Susannah a ticket out of prison, and even a chance to make contact with her long-lost daughter. These two motivations are of course completely out of balance, ethically and emotionally, but that's part of the playwright's plan, and he uses this discrepancy to keep a serviceable level of tension going throughout his first act.

But once Pearl is freed - yet distracted from finding her daughter by Susannah's machinations - Higgins loses control of his play, largely because he is in no way an ironist (in fact, he all but drips earnestness). Yet he's attempting to limn a deeply ironic scenario; thus the tone of Black Pearl Sings! goes haywire as Pearl begins to sing for white audiences, and receives joyous acclaim, while Higgins forces her through unlikely narrative hoops to keep up a sense of her exploitation (Susannah's insistence on Pearl dressing as a prisoner onstage, for instance, just seems ridiculous). Of course in a way the playwright is hamstrung because the point he's trying to make implicates his audience, too - we, like Susannah, are more interested in Pearl's music than her history. We're exploiting the African-American spiritual as much as she is. And what's more, the playwright is, too.

I'm not sure if there's a way out of that artistic conundrum; but if there is, Higgins doesn't find it, and the tragedy he tacks on to the tail end of the script feels - well, tacked-on. The final irony, however, is that his play is still often affecting because the African-American spiritual is indeed a most powerful thing, and Cherene Snow has the voice to deliver it a cappella with tremendous emotional force (and Valerie Leonard's no slouch vocally, either). What's more, Snow underplays Pearl to poignant perfection - and if Leonard slightly over-indicates Susannah's highstrung nature, she still gets points for sweetly negotiating just about every white-chick cliché on the books (she can't dance, can't get a man, etc., etc.). Over the course of the evening these two talented women do achieve a strong sense of connection on stage. So once again we find our performers redeeming at least their material, if not the terrible history that said material seeks to limn.