Black Pearl Sings!

By staff April 20, 2009

Florida Studio Theatre's Black Pearl Sings!  traces some nearly lost history.

By Kay Kipling


Black Pearl Sings!, now showing on Florida Studio Theatre’s mainstage, is not really a musical. But it is a play where the music talks—in bits and pieces of lore and stories recovered from near-extinction thanks to two determined women. 

The first of the women is Susannah (Forrest Richards), a music historian searching for “lost” folk music in a women’s prison in Texas in the midst of the Depression, in 1935. The second of the women is one of the prisoners, Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Alice M. Gatling), serving time for killing a man (under circumstances we gradually come to understand). For Pearl, the descendant of slaves, helping Susannah to record some previously unheard songs for the Library of Congress could be her ticket to parole, so she can search for the beloved daughter she hasn’t seen in 10 years. For Susannah, it could mean the prestigious Harvard job she wants, if only Pearl can give her a song no one else has yet found—a song tracing its roots all the way back to Africa.


 Alice M. Gatling in Florida Studio Theatre's Black Pearl Sings!


The women have reason to work together, but there are, naturally, suspicions, too. And Pearl is not about to just give away her treasures; she doles them out sparingly as she weighs whether or not Susannah can really help her get what she wants. Pearl, as movingly played by Gatling, is tough, but she’s not a standard-issue strong black matriarch; she has enough quirks to render her truly an individual, and we believe that she can accomplish what she sets out to do.

The first half of the play is set in that Texas prison; the second, in New York, where Susannah brings Pearl to perform for her Greenwich Village friends and other liberal types. (Among the many good comedy lines in Frank Higgins’ dialogue are a few digging at the way the New York sophisticates respond to Pearl—which she in turn comes to enjoy greatly). Despite coming into the production at the last minute, Richards plays Susannah with great energy and confidence, and she and Gatling play well off each other. But the expected clash between them in Act II comes across as abrupt and unbelievable; it feels contrived, there just because the playwright needed it to be there.


Other than that, though, Black Pearl Sings! is an entertaining, involving, frequently stirring piece of work. It continues through May 30; for tickets call 366-9000 or visit
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