Minka Wiltz in "Black Pearl Sings!" Photo by Daren Scott
The personal crises that are milked for pathos in the San Diego Repertory’s Black Pearl Sings! are secondary to the sheer emotive power of Minka Wiltz’s vocals. In Frank Higgins’ drama set in Depression-era Texas (then later in Greenwich Village), Wiltz portrays Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, an African-American woman doing hard time for a murder. Into her life intrudes an abrasive Library of Congress musicologist (Allison Spratt Pearce) who dangles the chance of parole at Pearl if she will share in recordings the endangered songs of her slavery heritage. Questions of compromise, cultural appropriation and self-determination emanate from Higgins’ overreaching and somewhat predictable script, one inspired by musicologist John Lomax’s working relationship with folk-blues legend Lead Belly.
Wiltz is a revelation as Pearl, summoning the pain of a harrowing past even when she’s not singing. Spratt Pearce does well enough with the off-putting character of Susannah Mullally, making her as sympathetic as is possible. The unseen but very much heard star of this show is the music, which aches with human drama. (Review originally published 12/6/17 in San Diego CityBeat.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.