As a major winter snowstorm was ending, my companion who was visiting from New York and I headed for Northlight Theatre in Skokie to see Black Pearl Sings. It was well worth braving the elements. Under the direction of Artistic Director BJ Jones and Executive Director Timothy J. Evans, written by Frank Higgins, directed by Steve Scott, this powerful new play features Northlight favorites E. Faye Butler (Jeff Award-winner for Northlight’s Ella and Dinah Was) and Susie McMonagle (Northlight’s Snapshots, national tour of Billy Elliott and Mamma Mia!).
This is a Depression-era story of two extraordinary women who are dependant on one another to reach their goals. Susannah is a song collector for the Library of Congress who overhears Pearl singing in a Texas prison where Susannah is trying to find songs that slaves sang when coming to America from Africa. Does Pearl hold the key to Susannah’s goal of attaining the university position she has been coveting? Pearl's singing is deeply moving and Susannah pulls every string possible to obtiain her prison release in order to introduce this woman with the silky voice and steely spirit to the world.
E. Faye Butler’s portrayal of Alberta “Pearl” Johnson was riveting. Her singing is outstanding and even without a powerful, insightful, and emotional play, the singing would have made the evening worthwhile. But the play is movingi, suspenseful, emotional and humorous. Susannah Mullally (Susie McMonagle) is from a wealthy New York Irish family. She is repressed, brilliant and very ambitious. She goes to all lengths to prove to Pearl (E. Faye Butler) that she, an educated, wealthy white woman can be trusted by her. Pearl, who we first meet in ball and chain, is poor, black, uneducated and untrusting. Their interactions are perfectly portrayed.
Playwright Frank Higgins based this play on the story of musicologist John Avery Lomax and guitarist Huddle “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, a true depression-era story.
Playwright Frank Higgins wrote female characters and comments, “My idea was to change the characters’ gender and let them tell their own stories rather than trying to hammer historical round pegs into theatrical square holes. These are two women who come from two totally different traditions, both musically and culturally. When listening to the songs, we are listening to the souls of two great traditions which have come together here in America.”
The designers are Jack Magaw (Set Design), Emily McConnell (Costume Design), Sarah Hughey (Lighting Design) and Christopher Kriz (Sound Design) are all to be commended.
Jazz vocal artist Maggie Brown is the music consultant for Black Pearl Sings! and consulted on the authenticity of the range of music styles in the production—among them Gullah, and rare African American traditional and folk songs.
Watching the change in Pearl from the beginning to the end of the play was an enriching experience, which my companion from New York and I, thoroughly enjoyed. We strongly recommend this wonderful evening of theatre to Chicago Splash Magazine readers and friends.
Tickets for Black Pearl Sings!, $25-60, are available by phone at 847.673.6300, or online at northlight.org. Young Adult tickets (25 and under) are $10 (one per person with valid ID).
The Box Office is located at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, in Skokie. Box Office hours are Monday-Friday 10:00am-5:00pm, and Saturdays 12:00pm-5:00pm. On performance days, the box office hours are extended through showtime. The Box Office is closed on Sundays, except on performance days when it is open two hours prior to showtime.
Curtain times are: Tuesdays at 7:30pm (no show January 24 and 31 & February 14); Wednesdays at 1:00pm (no show February 1) and 7:30pm (no show February 8); Thursday at 7:30pm; Fridays at 8:00pm (except Opening on January 20, at 7:30pm); Saturdays at 2:30pm (no show January 14) and 8:00pm; and Sundays at 2:30pm and 7:00pm (no 7:00pm show on January 22 and 29 & February 19).