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Black Pearl Sings

by Frank Higgins

COMPANY : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
ID# 3708

SHOWING : March 26, 2010 - April 25, 2010



Go on a musical journey! Susannah travels the country recording lost traditional songs. When she finds Pearl in a Texas prison, she discovers dozens of musical treasures rooted in the African tradition. With a soulful voice, Pearl must decide whether to give away her ancestors’ songs for a chance at her own freedom. Music unites strangers in a powerful, honest, and wryly funny story.

Susannah Cynthia Barrett
set and costume design Isabel curley-clay
costume and set design Moriah curley-clay
Pearl Minka Wiltz
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I Sing the Past Electric
by Dedalus
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Minka Wiltz is a force of nature. In “Black Pearl Sings” by Frank Higgins, she disappears into the character of Pearl, splashing her past and hurt and triumph across the Horizon stage with a power that is absolutely breathtaking. From her opening notes in the background of a Texas prison to her final triumphant hymn in a Greenwich Village Apartment, she creates a character that is true, layered, and profoundly moving.

Based loosely on the lives of blues great Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and musicologist John Lomax, this play (set in 1935 and 1936) transgenders the characters to Pearl (Ms. Wiltz), a prisoner with a voice of velvet, and to Susannah (Cynthia Barrett), a musicologist trying to make a dent in male-dominated academia with her quest for “lost songs,” folk music from past that has survived as oral tradition sung from generation to generation. Pearl has just what Susannah needs, a wealth of songs, a wealth of history, and, a wealth of talent.

As the play continues, we see both women using their meeting to use each other to achieve their own goals, Pearl to escape prison and find her daughter, Susannah to get a Harvard professorship. Their unlikely friendship keeps us guessing as to its depth, its sincerity, its ability to survive its usefulness. And the play is not shy about the price each must pay for the success of their goal, the cost to their souls, to their happiness.

Director Andrea Frye and Designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay (set and costumes), Mary Parker (Lights), and Thom Jenkins (Sound) have collaborated well to bring us a period piece that is true to its period while letting contemporary allusions and parallels find logical footing. The attention to detail is beautiful to behold, beautiful to hear.

But it is the central performance by Minka Wiltz that is the true driver of this piece. Singing mostly a cappella, Ms. Wiltz has a voice that gloriously fills the space. She gives the songs so much of her heart and soul, that it is a miracle she has any left for the dialogue scenes. But a miracle it is, as she gives Pearl a wide range -- suspicion, hurt, loss, pride, and even joy. The final moments of the play especially unite all the elements and give them a perfect expression, shared specifically with us and NOT with Susannah.

Ms. Barrett’s Susannah cannot hope to match the power of Ms. Wiltz’ performance, and, to her credit, she doesn’t try. Susannah knows her own musical abilities cannot match the from-the-soul honesty of her protégée. Still, the two actresses are quite good together, the “power imbalance” actually works in the service of the play.

I really like how this play embraces the idea of music as a cultural indicator, a barometer of the inevitable mix of influences and sources. I like how music is cherished as a piece of the past, a family artifact, how music can bring disparate people together, finding a new expression through the combination of old styles and melodies. Many of the songs included are familiar folk melodies, but heard here with unfamiliar words and in unfamiliar styles.

I really like how this play embraces these two women, showing that they have more in common than their time and their backgrounds would suggest. I like how their journey together never becomes a cliché, how their differences are never resolved, how their similarities remain celebrated.

And I really LOVE how Minka Wiltz can sing her past with an electric intensity that stirs the memory and the mind, the heart and the soul.

This is a play to treasure!

-- Brad Rudy (

Couldn't Agree More by Eljay
Thank You Brad Rudy for expressing what I was thinking. I have had the good fortune of watching Minka Wiltz ("Pearl") since this performance, and her vocal/theatrical powers are a force to behold and to be reckoned with!!


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