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Songs of Memory and Hope at the Kitchen

BlackPearlIt’s been too many years since Lisa Gaye Dixon graced the stage at the Kitchen Theatre, so her presence alone would be more than enough reason to see Black Pearl Sings!
This time the actress also gets to sing—with beauty, passion, and at one point, a murderous melancholy. Once again she is joined by director Sara Lampert Hoover.
The play by Frank Higgins, inspired by the complicated relationship between famed folklorist John Lomax and the great singer/guitarist Lead Belly, aims high, exploring the fraught borderlands that lie between cultural appropriation and exploitation, and an artist’s own use of their memories and heritage. The first act over-reaches, with overly schematic scenes that don’t really build on each other; Higgins’s archery is more skillful in the simpler, intimate scenes of the second act, which have more to do with motherhood, loss, mourning and survival.
Instead of two men, Higgins imagines two women. A white woman folklorist named Susannah Mullaly attempts to make a name for herself and wrangle a job at Harvard (Lomax was already famous) while also rescuing old slave songs before they disappear from the historical record. Alberta (Pearl) Johnson, a black woman convict in jail for murdering a man (as was Lead Belly) has songs, memories and a voice; what she doesn’t have is freedom or contact with her troubled daughter.
Feel-good stories, especially in historically based or memory plays, that jam together a white person (often misinformed, but typically with a good heart), and a black person (typically wry and humorous, yet dependent on the white person for economic or other reasons) are a genre unto themselves; Driving Miss Daisy perhaps the best example.
This play mostly dodges the worst sins of this genre (what has been termed the “white savior” syndrome.) Most of the moral cards are in Pearl’s deck, and issues of the two women “using” one another are front and center. A bit of minstrel (mis)representation that Susannah attempts late in the play brings audible gasps from the audience.
Dixon carves out a woman of many moods and personas: suspicious, ribald, fearful, ecstatic, queenly, cocky, defeated and triumphant. Always the characterization remains anchored in the deep roots of heritage, family and punishing circumstances (she begins the play in a 1930s Texas prison work-farm.) Dixon’s early eerily quiet moments (in ball and chains) resonate with as many chords as the songs she sings.
Emily Dorsch plays Susannah as a somewhat upperclass rebel. While she can be two-fisted and feisty about power dynamics, as played by Dorsch, Susannah is also a woman of refined manners and a certain delicacy. This approach misfires some in act one, which lacks a necessary sense of danger between the two women, but it pays off in act two, as Pearl upends all Susannah’s carefully wrought plans. (The play quietly hints that Susannah may be lesbian, but the production leaves that to the side.)
The true emotional center of Black Pearl Sings! is the search for the daughter combined with the search for one’s future (can we continue, uprooted from our past.) The minor faults of the earlier writing fade away as the play comes to its wrenching final scenes. Fierce longing, remorse and joy play between these two skilled performers, aided by Lampert Hoover’s adroit staging.
The stage design is splendid, David Arsenault returning on lights and set, with Lisa Boquist providing the apt, lived-in costuming. Arsenault cleverly transforms a white-washed plank wall in act one to a Greenwich Village garret in act two.
The sound design is beautifully focused, buttressing the performances (especially Dixon’s) with great subtlety, providing drum rhythms, field hollas, and brief bursts of environmental sound. Here’s hoping that the Kitchen continues to employ sound designer Anthony Mattana (who also did the sound for Heroes).
In the end this is a play of muted joy, triumphant song and the pain of moving forward across the great racial divide that is the American nation. A welcome holiday offering.

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