Who owns the musical heritage of a people?
That is one of the central questions driving Black Pearl Sings, the riveting two-character drama at Jubilee Theatre.
The play, set in the Depression Era, revolves around the life of Alberta "Pearl" Johnson (Liz Mikel), a black woman who is serving time in a Texas prison for doing some unauthorized surgery on a man who had done her wrong. Conditions are so brutal at her institution that, when we meet her, she is dragging a ball and chain. And her work duties include such pleasant chores as draining a swamp.
Into her tortured life strides Susannah Mullally (Lana K. Hoover), a well-to-do and very proper white musicologist who is visiting the prison in hopes of gathering old songs from the black inmates. She is especially driven to try to find tunes that will link black Americans to their African musical roots. And when she hears Johnson sing, she thinks she has found the mother lode.
Their initial meeting sets off an elaborate and complicated dance between the two women in which each tries to exploit the other, sometimes with loving benevolence and sometimes with self-serving tenacity. Control shifts constantly in this compelling script by Frank Higgins, who was in attendance for Friday's opening night. His dialog is crisp and sharp, and, although the play is a drama, it has several hilarious zingers that are funny enough to literally stop the show.
Higgins' fine text is fully realized by Mikel, Hoover and director Akin Babatunde -- a superb actor himself who finds a way to bring those talents to bear on this production without overdoing his job. The decisions he makes call attention to his actresses, not himself.
Not that Mikel and Hoover need much help. Both are outstanding. Hoover captures her patrician academic in every detail, especially her character's movement and near-regal bearing.
Mikel, a fabulous singer-actress who is too seldom seen on this side of the Metroplex (she last performed at Jubilee in 1995), is devastatingly good. If you are not moved by her performance, which requires her to frequently break into bits of a cappella singing, you have neither ears nor a soul.
The women shine from curtain to curtain but, surprisingly, their skills may be most obvious in those moments when the audience is doubled up with laughter. When those points arose at Friday's opening-night performance, the actresses stopped their deliveries, but they never broke character or lost their rhythm. Because that's what real actors do.
Costumer Barbara O'Donoghue also deserves a nod. All of her choices are good ones, especially in the way she dresses Hoover.
In short, it would be difficult to think of a better way to honor Black History Month than by doing yourself the favor of seeing this show. It is both intensely human and intellectually rich. The ending, especially, begs to be examined and discussed. And the work as a whole deserves and demands to be felt.