Black Pearl Sings!: Theater spotlight

It is a scorching summer in 1935 at a Texas prison farm when Susannah (Stacia Rice), a government-employed music researcher, arrives in search of original African-American tunes to record for the Library of Congress. She hits pay dirt in the form of Pearl (Crystal Fox), first overheard belting out a song in the prison yard. Summoned by Susannah, Pearl arrives encumbered by a literal ball and chain. Frank Higgins's scenario plays out from here with a tenacious and multifaceted examination of what drives these women and what they want. The pinched and prim Susannah, having been earlier ripped off by a male colleague in the search for musical folklore, dreams of an Ivy League sinecure. Pearl's ambitions are exponentially humbler: Having served a decade for castrating a scoundrel lover, she wants to find the daughter with whom she has recently lost touch. Rice and Fox tease out a plausibly developing relationship between these two women as the evening progresses, with Pearl at first deeply wary and as defiant as she can be, and Susannah a throbbing, raw nerve hell-bent on disguising the hurt in her heart. Soon Pearl delivers the goods, in terms of songs Susannah has never heard on her travels, and the duo end up in New York. Pearl becomes the object of a great deal of radical chic, lauded for her "authenticity" and compared to King Kong in a newspaper review (with as much racial enlightenment as one would imagine). Lou Bellamy's direction steers matters into realms of subtly legitimate, if understated, emotion: When Pearl's facade finally shatters in the wake of unspeakable news, a painfully rendered moment probes the divides our better angels would like to hope do not exist. The show feels limited in scope by its two-person cast. While the interplay between Rice and Fox sustains the early act nicely, Pearl's coming-out performance in the big city feels strained by the void that surrounds two very able actresses. Still, with more than 20 songs performed a cappella by Fox, delving into deep roots and a gorgeous African theme, the play's strengths outweigh its weaknesses. $18-$38. 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul; 651.224.3180. Through March 14

 
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