The first time I saw
Black Pearl Sings
, a new play by Frank Higgins currently at InterAct Theatre, I hated it. It was last spring at a theater in Florida, and this period melodrama - in which an uptight white woman collecting rural folk songs for the Library of Congress is taught life lessons by an African American convict - seemed cloying and cliched in the extreme. Well, what a difference a director makes.
In Seth Rozin's hands, Black Pearl sings, all right, and women wasting their girls-night-out money on faux female-bonding shows like Respect or Menopause: The Musical ought to demand refunds, link arms, and head straight to the Adrienne Theatre for the real deal, courtesy of InterAct Theatre Company.
There's music here too, both spiritual and playful, albeit from the Depression era and earlier. Higgins' drama is modeled after the relationship between bluesman Leadbelly and musicologist John Lomax, but the women make it their own, with tunes devastatingly bellowed by C. Kelly Wright as Pearl Johnson, and sung with a self-conscious reserve by Catherine Slusar as Susannah Mullally.
Rozin carefully calibrates the women's intellectual and emotional balance. He allows them dignity, silliness, and secrets in equal measure without forcing them to wallow too deeply for too long in the type of unbridled pathos and sentimentality that could drown this play.
And Higgins definitely tends to lean hard on a point. It's not enough that he set the piece in 1935; he's an unrepentant name-dropper. When the women arrive in New York to present Pearl's songs for a Carnegie Hall audience, Susannah receives a telegram from a competing song collector named Zora Neale Hurston. A neighbor? The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. That guy at the Cotton Club last night? Cab Calloway.
But Wright and Slusar are strong enough to resist the script's baser instincts. The play's success lies in its characters' friendship, not their surroundings - though Shannon Zura's set, particularly Susannah's gorgeous red-damask-wallpapered, Craftsman-style apartment, allows the women to stretch out and explore the space between them. Pearl describes the way her husband flirted with her in song while selling blackberries. Susannah replies dreamily, "A work song. We could get a grant for that."
There may be some irony in the fact that this endearing examination of women and race was written and directed by a pair of white men, but then again maybe that's just Higgins' point. Just as Susannah's search for "authenticity" led her to expand the definition, this production asks its audience to do the same.
Black Pearl Sings
Presented by InterAct Theatre Company at Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., through June 27. Tickets: $25-$29. Information: 215-568-8079 or www.InteractTheatre.org.