Who: Kitchen Theatre Co.
Where: 417 W. State / W. MLK, Jr. St., Ithaca, NY
When: Through December 22nd
Review by: Nick Reichert
Sometimes looking toward the future requires confronting and making peace with the past. The Kitchen Theatre Company’s production of playwright Frank Higgins’s Black Pearl Sings! depicts the standoff and eventual friendship of two seemingly disparate women. As the songs spring forth and the duo’s pasts come out, a friendship of beauty and strength is born. Black Pearl Sings! delivers the sound and fury of those who have toiled and is a love note to those fighting for future harmony.
Set during the throws of the Great Depression, the play presents the relationship between Susannah Mullally, a white, Harvard-educated musicologist, and Alberta Johnson, a black inmate in a Texas women’s chain gang. The independent and strong-willed Mullally is a folk song scholar and originally sees Johnson (her friends call her Pearl) as a well full of African and slave folk tunes. Pearl is a hard, veritable force of nature but is burdened by the shackles of prison and societal struggles as a black woman in 1933 America. The pair’s relationship begins as a symbiotic one: Pearl sings and performs songs from her childhood to record for Mullally, and Mullally helps Pearl find her daughter who has recently gone missing.
Plays that have a smaller production and ensemble carry with it a greater burden on the actors to carry the dramatic weight of the show. Lisa Gaye Dixon (Pearl) and Emily Dorsch (Mullally) are heavyweights of the dramatic art. The two parry, punch and play with one another as their characters turn from disgruntled partners to close friends and musical partners. Dixon and Dorsch are an elegant a pair that dance through the oppressive mores of their present and past cultures.
When the play opens in the oppressive temperature in the warden’s office in Texas, it doesn’t take too long for the audience to be treated to the power of song. Dixon’s voice is like the Mississippi River coursing through the body of the play, dripping with the weight of the blues and the echoes of the past. Dixon is akin to her character’s name Pearl, a rare treat rich in talent.
Dorsch’s Mullally provides a quiet balance to Dixon’s palpable force. Her quiet, maintained reserve is just a mask that conceals a whirlwind of spirit and flame. As the façade of professionalism chips away at Mullally, Dorsch blossoms into a resilient warrior, not only fighting for the preservation of generations of voices, but her own identity.
Within the trappings of this humble play lie many topics of the highest order including civil rights, female equality and cultural appropriation. Director Sara Lampert Hoover and the design team created an arena for two artists (Dixon and Dorsch) to stretch, play and create through words, stories and songs. Pearl’s music is as old as the nation and as sorrowful as the blood of the people that was spilled to build it. Black Pearl Sings! is a reminder of how far America has come, and how much further it has yet to go.