Black Pearl Sings!

Black Pearl Sings!Frank Higgins’ play is set in Depression-era Texas and, while based on some of the early musicologists’ collecting folk songs, imagines a meeting between a White musicologist from the Library of Congress and a jailed African American woman with a powerful voice. Their subsequent relationship shows that they both are carrying a great deal that forges a strong relationship. Susanna Mullally carries resentments and frustrations of the Harvard’s old boys’ club that has kept her from her academic dreams, while Alberta ‘Pearl’ Johnson carries the heavy history but also the songs of her immediate family and her ancestors. It’s a tale about race, reconciliation, and the secrets, wounds, and tenacity of women who pass on the songs. It’s also a play for us who must listen to them.

Read more about Black Pearl Sings!

The Real Inspiration

An Interview with the Playwright

A Note from the Playwright



  1. What has Frank Higgins meant by writing these two female characters in his play?
  2. Why do these two women hold something, a secret or such, from each other, and does this suggest they are not true friends?
  3. Artistic Producer calls this a “play with music,” therefore Helen Hayes deems it not a musical play? Is Black Pearl Sings! a work of music-theatre if there are only two women singing occasionally a capella? How would you define this play, and is there a usefulness in making these distinctions?

7 comments on “Black Pearl Sings!”

  1. Melinda Murray

    Thinking about whether the two are friends is interesting in the context of those times. I think they came to respect each other. But keeping the deep secret from one another meant to me they were holding back. I appreciate the comment that you have secrets with your friends. But the African song and Susannah’s family were each fundamental to who they were. So in both cases they didn’t really know each other at their depth.
    Musical? I don’t think orchestration matters. They were songs that were an integral part of the plot. Sound like music theater to me.

  2. Duane

    This is what good theater is all about – it draws us into a compelling story, strips down a personal drama to essential issues that we need to confront, consider and convert into new ways of thinking about our society. It is a redemptive work told through the search for our collective musical history, a search which ultimately after much struggle and conflict in their relationship leads to Pearl and Susannah finding their inner music/ balance. Music is at the core of the production because it serves as the primary vehicle to develop their relationship and move the story along. So yes – music-theatre in its essential form.

  3. Susan

    I was lucky to see this piece twice, once on opening night. A few days later, it had already grown. The first time I was struck by how the music — with the simplest of means — advanced the story. It did make me think how important it was for the show to have been reimagined for two women. It is so often that women in singing to their children are the ones to pass on their culture through songs. The play is a strong reminder that music-theatre can constantly be redefined and offer the most moving of theatrical experiences. (I liked what one woman in the audience shared about how, as women, they could and would share more emotionally.)
    On the second viewing, I was struck by two things. One was the importance of prison as theme and metaphor. Pearl embodies a person who carries that unspeakable shame (that prisoners have talked to me about) all her life. It’s another secret she holds and another aspect — beyond race, economic differences and educational differences — that shows how these two women have almost insurmountable barriers to becoming true friends. But Higgins has also done something quite remarkable, I think, in creating the other character, Susanna, who seems to be metaphorically imprisoned. We learn that she is an outcast to her family, Beyond this, though she has eschewed marriage (and maybe all men) and tramps around the country independently, she still is fighting, as if from behind bars, and can’t break through to freedom to be herself.
    The other thing I noticed in the performance was the quality of listening, especially from the actress Roz White. Her performance becomes electrifying as her character emerges in the first meeting from a closed-down shell of a prisoner to someone taking in so much information and willing to risk so much in order to get free and find her daughter. This play’s integration of simple songs also uses silence for powerful effect. Long before we get to hear Pearl’s “secret” song, we know it’s there. Roz White’s strong and ferocious performance makes us hear it with every heartbeat.

  4. Kay

    While the play moved me, I found it harder to read the choices the actress playing Susanna made and that made what should have been a very complex character seem “stagey” and more of a caricature. A pity. I think the production would make an even stronger statement if the two women had been more equal and equally complex. I think of the question Susan raises about “Are they friends?” They certainly ARE initially “playing” each other to advance their own agenda. Pearl says they are “friendly.” Both have their guard up, yes. Both have secrets they carry. But by the endI feel I know Pearl better and care for her character so much more.

  5. Robert Darling

    A moving afternoon spent in the theater. The playwright skillfully moves us from story into song as any natural MT work would. The performers were wonderful and the music so enhanced the progress of the play.

  6. Mary Darling

    Cheers for Metro Stage for putting this piece on – the intimacy of the space added to the emotion. True friends? I don’t think so. There is a bond built on respect for each others struggles and strength. But both women have their guard up, clearly seeing how each benefits from their collaboration.

  7. @artsconnecteddc

    What a great production of an outstanding script. I also loved the references to Zora Neale Hurston and her work with John Lomax. Note that our own Arena Stage produced POLK COUNTY by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring in Spring 2002. This was another piece of music-theatre or play with music that grew out of the research that Zora Neale Hurston did and also her memories of her hometown.

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