Wednesday, June 9, 2010

BLACK PEARL SINGS Actresses Interviewed in The Intelligencer

Naila Franics has written a great article about BLACK PEARL SINGS for The Intelligencer, including interviews with both actresses in the show. Take a look...

Songs For The Journey

By Naila Franicis
The Intelligencer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ultimately, it’s often reflected upon as a story of unlikely friendship.

But “Black Pearl Sings!,” Frank Higgins’ critically acclaimed drama about two women confronted by race and gender biases during the Great Depression, packs a much more compelling complexity. ...

“What’s easy to do with the play is to make it about people connecting and I think the story has more to do with them not connecting,” says Catharine K. Slusar, the Philadelphia-based actress who plays Susannah. “By the end of the play, they respect each other deeply in a way that wasn’t possible in the beginning. In the beginning, Susannah just needs to make the next big discovery so she can get a teaching job at Harvard and Pearl just needs to get out so she can see her daughter.

“You think these two women are never going to see eye to eye. They are so stubborn and single-minded, but the interesting thing is it comes when you don’t expect it. … I don’t know that they’re friends but they love each other, which is more than that in a way.”

For both Slusar, also director of the theater department at Bryn Mawr College, and C. Kelly Wright, who is making her Philadelphia debut in the role of Pearl, the play is a powerful meditation on survival, the preservation of cultural heritage — and the slippery slope to define what’s authentic and what isn’t — and the similarities that bind us, often more deeply than any initial differences and misperceptions may suggest.

“It’s about the common ground among human beings and women and really just coming to a point where I can appreciate that (Susannah) is not so different from me,” says Wright, who recently relocated to New York after years in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Susannah’s not alone in having her misconceptions. Pearl has a boatload of them herself based on her experience. She has to form a new world order, I think, and she gets that from Susannah. The ways in which they’re different — the things the other person possesses — many of these are things that they could use.”

While Pearl definitely believes herself to bear a greater burden of injustice and degradation based on her race, Higgins handily juxtaposes her oppression with that of Susannah’s own gender struggles.

“It’s easy to see what Pearl is fighting against because of the history of slavery in our country and segregation, etc., and she’s in prison. You think that white people had all the power, but I think what Frank does that’s interesting is he makes the struggle of women deeply important,” says Slusar, a Barrymore Award-winning actress who has appeared in several InterAct Theatre productions ...

Still, Pearl and Susannah forge a delicate trust as they begin to dismantle their preconceived notions about each other. That bond is further enriched by the 20 or so songs that they share in the play. Though most of them are in the public domain and several may sound familiar, even the most well-known ones — “Kum Ba Yah” and “This Little Light of Mine,” for instance — are rendered in live, little-heard a cappella versions.

“Most of the songs, the way they’re placed in the piece, they have a dual meaning,” says Wright, whose recent credits include the off-Broadway production of “Langston In Harlem” and Playwrights Horizons’ “Red Clay,” in which she portrayed Rosa Parks. “Many of them start off as one experience and end up as another. They serve to place the piece time-wise and to ground it in the earthiness that it’s coming from. [‘Black Pearl Sings!’] is about the songs, but it’s also about the life that these songs sing about.”
The songs also underscore the importance of preserving the past. Slusar says that her character doesn’t want the past to get lost within all the tumult and change of the Great Depression; in reaching back to protect what she believes is important, she also hopes to prove the power of song as both a survival and communication skill.

For Wright, the play is preserving something that strikes a little closer to home.

“There are actors who don’t want to portray certain periods of time — they don’t want to do another slave show or Civil War show — but I feel very protective of those voices because they didn’t get their opportunity to speak,” says Wright. “Sometimes in the retelling of their stories, they’re not fully thought through, but Frank has written Pearl to be strong and knowledgeable. She’s not a caricature. She has hopes and dreams and fears and prayers, very much like me. I find a full place to start with her and that feels good.”

Links to more information about BLACK PEARL SINGS!:

Read Naila Francis' Full Intelligencer Article

Purchase Tickets

Read Wendy Rosenfield's Philadelphia Inquirer Review

Read Kimberly Roberts' Philadelphia Tribune Review

Listen to Music Featured in BLACK PEARL SINGS!

Play Description, Artist Bios & Performance Calendar

An Interview with Playwright Frank Higgins

Watch a video trailer of BLACK PEARL SINGS!
at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C.

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