Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. In the new Frank Higgins play, Black Pearl Sings! now at Actor's Theatre, there are unmistakable parallels between the title character and the true-life story of the legendary Leadbelly. Both folksingers were pardoned by the Gpvernor of Texas while serving life sentences for murder, and both were discovered while in prison by enterprising folklorists, who subsequently paraded their discoveries in front of New York intellectual elites and recorded them for the Library of Congress.
Difference is, the Governor of Texas pardoned Leadbelly on his own initiative -- after publicly declaring his opposition to all pardons -- and the folklorist who discovered him, John Lomax, had to petition the Governor of Louisiana, after Leadbelly was imprisoned yet again. In Black Pearl, our young folklorist, against all odds, wins the pardon from the Governor of Texas, conflating the two events. The multiple imprisonments of Leadbelly, before and after Lomax made him a darling of the elite, have no parallel in the play.
But Higgins switches their gender, so that restores some of the truth/fiction balance. It also allows Susannah Mullally, aspiring folklorist in an academic field dominated by men, to empathize more with the great talent she discovers. Higgins has shifted Pearl's birthplace from Leadbelly's native Louisiana to Hilton Head Island, changing and softening her back story. We get a little "Kumbaya" -- and some voodoo zombie hijinks -- in the bargain added on to the blues shouts and work songs, plus a feminist thrust to her criminality, in appropriately crude Lorena Bobbitt style.
While the play has worrisome problems in Act 2, as Susannah and Pearl lock horns in New York, it serves as a marvelous vehicle for Terry Henry-Norman as the bigger-than-life, mean-mamma folksinger. Although it would probably pay dividends if Henry-Norman could look a little more awkward in a fancy dress, she ranges credibly from the hardened prisoner to the caring mother that Higgins has sketched. There's a rough beauty to her singing that conjures up some of the elemental chain-gang force that Odetta could bring to work songs and blues shouts, and Henry-Norman occasionally adds a fine growl to augment the primitive effect.
Dressed by costume designer Jamey Varnadore in unrelenting primness, Stephanie DiPaolo has a far less majestic character range to work with as Susannah, whose cluelessness and crustiness never sprout a Miss Daisy charm. On opening night, it appeared that director Dennis Delamar may have over-rehearsed his academic do-gooder, for the only wrinkles in DiPaolo's otherwise polished performance came when she was called upon to register surprise.
Act 2 reaches its climax when Stephanie proposes that Pearl -- to enhance her onstage "authenticity" -- do something so crass and demeaning that the Actor's Theatre audience collectively gasped. Yet in the denouement, Pearl is actually willing to submit to this indignity. Left a bad taste in my mouth as we exited into the lobby, I must say.
But archival photos of Leadbelly that I later found online proved that Higgins had once again used historical fact in crafting his story line. To make his fiction more graceful than documented truth, Higgins and/or Delamar need to allude to the bizarre historical precedent that would make Susannah's suggestion -- and Pearl's decision -- believable, or coarsen Pearl sufficiently to make us believe there really is a price for which she would sell her soul.
By all means go and see Henry-Norman's triumph as Pearl. Enjoy it all the more knowing that its most improbable plot twists are etched in history.