Crystin Gilmore comes to Charleston to take on the role of Pearl, performing opposite Charleston Stage resident actor Katelyn Crall as Susannah | Photo courtesy Charleston Stage

A plastic box on a shelf at the public library in Kansas City, Kansas, steered playwright Frank Higgins to the inspiration for Black Pearl Sings!, a play Charleston Stage will present beginning March 9 at Dock Street Theater.

The box held a VHS recording. Higgins’ eyes were drawn to its evocative title, The Language You Cry In. The film tells of the real-life meeting between a Mende woman in Sierra Leone and a woman from coastal Georgia. They share the same African funeral dirge, which some historians consider to be the longest text in an African language discovered in the United States.

The film cemented a theory: If the West African coiled basket tradition, which led to Lowcountry sweetgrass baskets, can travel to America during trans-Atlantic slavery, then the same must also apply to songs.

From that story emerged Higgins’ full-length play. 

In November 2007, Houston’s Stages Repertory Theatre premiered Black Pearl Sings! Since then the play has been performed in at least 30 theaters around the nation. 

Charleston native Henry Clay Middleton directs the play. “This story is the relationship between the two women, two people from different worlds finding that each one has something the other one needs,” he explained. “But you find out life teaches what you want is not what you need.”  

Set in 1933 and 1934, Black Pearl Sings! tells the story of strong-willed Susannah, an ambitious, educated white song collector for the Library of Congress, played by Katelyn Crall. Played by Crystin Gilmore, Pearl is an uneducated yet cunning Gullah woman from Hilton Head Island who has been confined for ten years in a Texas prison for murder.

Susannah travels to prisons to meet inmates with limited exposure to popular culture. She believes they are more likely to know old songs, possibly even African songs that pre-date slavery. Pearl is committed, even from prison, to finding a missing daughter. Fragments of the song Pearl sings but is reluctant to share with Susannah punctuate the play to suggest an African language song will be revealed to link the generations. “Even if there be only one person singin’ this song,” chants Pearl. “It be all of us in one mouth.” 

Higgins said he originally toyed with the idea of recounting the story of Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, a legendary Louisiana blues singer and musician. While doing time in the state’s infamous Angola Prison in 1930, Lead Belly was sought out by folklorist John Lomax who traversed the South collecting the music of common folk. But Ledbetter and Lomax “never expressed any curiosity that any song came over on the slave ships,” Higgins said, adding that he believes it far more likely that women  would have been more inclined to pass a song from one generation to the next. When he found the VHS for The Language You Cry In, “that was manna from heaven.”  

The tale that inspired both The Language You Cry In and Black Pearl Sings! is itself fascinating. In the early 1930s, linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner recorded Amelia Dawley of Harris Neck, Ga., singing a song that was not in English. With the help of a graduate student from Sierra Leone he learned the song was in the Mende language. Years later he included an English translation in his 1949 book Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. 

While in a library in Freetown, Sierra Leone, an American Peace Corps volunteer named Joseph Opala saw Turner’s book. Intrigued that a song in the Mende language was found in coastal Georgia, Opala sought to also find the song in Sierra Leone.

Fortunately for Opala, Amelia Dawley also passed the song on to her daughter Mary Moran. With the help of Opala, Moran and her family traveled to Sierra Leone in 1997 to meet Baindu Jabati, a Mende singer whose grandmother taught her the very same funeral song. The Language You Cry In tells an emotional story of Moran’s meeting with Jabati. Black Pearl Sings brings the film’s spirit to life onstage. 

Charleston Stage’s resident actor Katelyn Crall says she wasn’t familiar with Black Pearl Sings! before being cast, but has since found much to love about the story. “It is beautiful and relevant while being deeply emotional and authentic,” said the actress. “The history is so rich.”

Crall views playing Susannah as one of the biggest challenges of her career. After an acclaimed lead performance in Bright Star this past fall, Black Pearl Sings! has provided her the chance to take on a different kind of character. 

“Susannah is a very complicated woman,” said Crall. “In many ways I admire her. But conversely there are times I would like to slap her across the face. She is a woman made from a time that was intolerant to so many, so I try to see her with a sense of grace.” 

Higgins says he’s thrilled to see his work come to life. Black Pearl Sings! will be staged from March 9-27 at the Dock Street Theater. For show times and tickets, go to charlestonstage.com

After the March 13 matinee Higgins and Middleton will participate in a Talkback session with Dr. Bernard Powers, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and professor emeritus in the History Department at The College of Charleston, and Dr. Rénard Harris, a jazz musician and vice president of access and inclusion and the chief diversity officer at the College of Charleston.


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