Pearl Before Design: Susannah (right) has ambitions of appropriating Pearl?s heritage.
Pearl Before Design: Susannah (right) has ambitions of appropriating Pearl?s heritage.

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Two vivid performances and a handsome Ford’s Theatre production make something almost like a drama out of Black Pearl Sings!, an otherwise limp after-school special of a play about an ambitious ‘30s ethnomusicologist and a Gullah woman whose songs constitute a ticket for both women to ride. Stuck in a blandly straightforward plot, hamstrung by the baldest kind of expository dialogue, Erika Rolfsrud and especially Tonya Pinkins still manage to carve intriguing three-dimensional personalities out of a script whose characters have maybe two-and-a-quarter between them.

Rolfsrud is Susannah, the researcher who’s on a quest to find folk musics dating back to “before slavery times,” as she keeps putting it. Pinkins plays Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, doing hard time in a Texas prison after visiting Lorena Bobbitt–style vengeance on a man with the devil in his hands. Struck when she hears Pearl’s rich contralto echoing down the hall one afternoon—“People with good voices tend to know a lot of songs,” she observes—Susannah pays wary court to the initially reluctant prisoner, hoping Pearl will offer up an unknown gem that’ll pave the way to fatter grants and maybe even an Ivy League teaching gig. Pearl, for her part, decides to play along when Susannah proves willing to help search for Pearl’s 22-year-old daughter—she’s gone missing from her Houston neighborhood, presumably in the company of another no-good man.

Eventually, the two bond sufficiently that Pearl produces a musical tidbit or two: alternate takes on familiar tunes at first, but then genuine obscurities, rare and exciting enough that Susannah begins to entertain visions of a parole and eventually a concert-and-lecture tour that’ll make both of them rich and famous. It’s a measure of Frank Higgins’ writerly ambition that he’s tried to generate some tension by sketching in some motivational conflict for Susannah, whose admirable curatorial instincts will turn out to be tangled up with academic ambitions and professional jealousies of a less noble sort—and who, when Pearl balks at her patron’s plans for conquering the chattering class, isn’t shy about applying a little “I-got-you-out-of-jail” blackmail.

Those clashes feel just that, though—writerly, imposed on the characters rather than growing out of their gut-level needs and wants—and they tend to resolve themselves with a suspiciously convenient dispatch. So it’s the more remarkable that Rolfsrud manages to create a convincing portrait of a good person with the odd bad instinct and lace the portrayal with just enough brittleness to suggest a talented scholar with a deep reservoir of self-doubt.

Pinkins, meanwhile, is no stranger to embittered, full-throated women. Tony-nominated for her scorching work as an angry, alienated housekeeper in the Broadway musical Caroline, Or Change, she brings her considerable vocal and emotional talents to bear on the character of Pearl, insisting on the character’s dignity and digging between Higgins’ lines to find motivations I’m not at all certain were there before she went prospecting. Her Pearl is the very picture of a survivor, a woman who knows her worth whatever situation she finds herself in, and when the evening’s (unsurprising) tragic climax arrives, her investment in the character trumps the plot’s predictability and makes room for genuine pangs.

If the institutional strengths at Ford’s don’t always extend to dramaturgical pace-setting—and Black Pearl is B-list material, even for this house—they do encompass a generous production budget, so designer Tony Cisek has been able to indulge himself with an intriguing bipolar set: The grimness of that Act 1 comments pointedly on the artsy-bohemian clutter of a Greenwich Village apartment that rolls out from behind a high-walled streetscape in Act 2. Add to that an invitingly layered lightscape from Dan Covey and unfussy direction by Jennifer L. Nelson, and you’ve got…well, a handsome production of an undistinguished if well-meant drama. But if you think of it as a primer on how a nation preserves its ordinary stories—and listen harder to the singing than to the talking—it’ll do well enough.