Opening Night: The cultural memory of song illuminates Black Pearl Sings

December 16, 2013 by Mark H. Anbinder

Currently playing at the Kitchen Theatre is "Black Pearl Sings," a Depression-era drama based loosely on the music of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter as discovered by folklorist John Lomax. The play, by Frank Higgins, follows a black female prisoner with a talent for song, and a white female researcher trying to make a name for herself.

Lisa Gaye Dixon (left) and Emily Dorsch are the whole company in "Black Pearl Sings!" at the Kitchen Theatre. Photo provided.Lisa Gaye Dixon (left) and Emily Dorsch are the whole company in "Black Pearl Sings!" at the Kitchen Theatre. Photo provided.Though it's not a "musical" in the Broadway-style sweeping-orchestral-numbers sense of the term, "Black Pearl Sings" features over twenty songs from the deep folk and gospel libraries of America's musical past. "When the construction of the new theater was complete, I remember waiting to hear music and song in the room," says Kitchen Theatre artistic director Rachel Lampert. "Would it have the same intimacy we enjoyed in our old space? The answer is a resounding and resonating yes!"

In our time when the work even of amateur musicians can garner a huge online audience, it may be hard to imagine an era when music could only be shared from one person to the next. The last of the music from that time is what Lomax sought to capture, carting expensive and heavy aluminum-disc-based sound recording equipment into the Appalachian hills to record cowboy songs, and into prisons to try to find slavery-era songs that had been passed down through black families.

Lomax recorded hundreds of songs for the Library of Congress that had been passed down from earlier generations, and in "Black Pearl Sings," the roving musicologist character, Susannah Mullally, dreams of capturing a song not just from the days of America's slavery past, but from the African heritage that came before it. She coaxes a number of old tunes out of weary prisoner Alberta "Pearl" Johnson, portrayed with verve by Lisa Gaye Dixon.

Both performers share their singing talent throughout the play, and Dorsch plays the autoharp, an instrument frequently captured, but not played, by John Lomax. Lampert says Dorsch just happened to be able to play the autoharp; the accomplished Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theater, and television performer, making her Kitchen Theatre debut, has a Bachelor of Music degree.

It's a shame this play didn't reach Ithaca eleven years ago; just over ten years ago, Sean Killeen, a longtime Ithaca resident who happened to be one of the foremost authorities on Lead Belly's life and music, passed away in a Nashville hotel room, the day before he was to speak about Mr. Ledbetter's music at the annual Folk Alliance Conference. Sean (pronounced "Shane" in Irish tradition) had been an alderman on Ithaca's Common Council and a board member at WVBR, and was a longtime international election monitor. In addition, he was president of the Lead Belly Society and produced anthology albums featuring the musician's recordings, some of which had been captured by Lomax.

"This play has lots of potentially interested groups," says the Kitchen Theatre's Lesley Greene. "We reached out to music professors, folk music groups, African American studies departments and groups, women's studies departments and groups, history departments and groups, and more." She says discounted tickets are offered to senior citizens through Lifelong and GIAC's senior programs.

Tickets are available online at kitchentheatre.org or by calling 607-272-0570, with student and senior discounts available. Check the schedule for cast and crew talkbacks, pre-show talks, pay-what-you-can night, matinees, and other events associated with "Black Pearl Sings," playing now through December 22nd at the Kitchen Theatre.

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