Seeing E. Faye Butler — a Chicago musical-theater diva of the first and most ebullient rank — walk out on stage in prison stripes and headscarf, with a ball and chain around her ankles, is quite the jarring sight. And although Frank Higgins' "Black Pearl Sings" is a play with music, Butler is required not to raise the roof of the Northlight Theatre (a feat she could complete before breakfast) but to free the natural voice of a woman whose song has been worn down by days on a chain gang.
One suspects this play was selected as a vehicle for Butler — and given the rich detail and emotional honesty of her performance, especially when Pearl does indeed sing old, old songs from Africa days, it's not hard to see why. Butler is paired in Steve Scott's production with Susie McMonagle, another formidable performer with a deep core and big heart. You just wish both of these remarkable actresses were in a less clunky play and a more free-wheeling production.
"Black Pearl Sings" is one of those affordable-to-produce, two-person plays that have been knocking around the regional circuit for a couple of years. It's loosely based (including a switch in gender) on the work of the great musicologist and folklorist John Lomax who, while working for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, figured out that the best way to find African-Americans in the South with memories of fast-disappearing songs was to haul his 315-pound recording device to state penitentiaries, given the ease with which an African-American could find him or herself incarcerated in that particular time and place. One of Lomax's big finds behind bars was a guitar player named Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter. Lomax pulled the strings only a white man could pull, helped Lead Belly get out of prison and proceeded to travel with him around the country, making live appearances and basking in the reflected glow of his find. At a later point, Lead Belly even performed in his old prison stripes, just to add to the exotic effect.
In Higgins' play, Lomax becomes Susannah and Lead Belly becomes Black Pearl. To its credit, the play certainly explores the price that Pearl has to pay for her freedom, not least of which is the way in Act 2 that she is paraded about for New York liberals as a kind of noble-savage "other," without regard for her own need to find a missing daughter and get on with an actual life that had been taken from her. But Higgins clearly didn't want to write too bleak a piece — even though bleakness was probably the truer way to go — and thus he pairs Pearl's struggles with the frustrated Susannah's attempts to be taken serious as a female intellectual within a male-dominated academy. The sexism that such a researcher would have encountered in this era has veracity, of course, but the play's constant parallelisms start to feel like thematic over-reaching, given that one of these women is in prison and the other is swanning around the country on a nice grant. There's rough, and there's rough.
Time and again, you feel pulled out of the compelling inter-personal situation by things that are tough to believe, starting with the way Susannah is constantly left alone with her prisoner (there's a price to be paid for keeping the cast down to two) and extending to the way Pearl's need to find this missing daughter in Houston is juxtaposed against Susannah's insistent desire to start her tour. Surely, you keep thinking, a nice woman like Susannah would have gone to Texas for a day. Things reach a nadir when the fate of this daughter, which Higgins uses so shamelessly to inject tension, is revealed in, of all things, a letter arriving out of nowhere. Even here, Pearl is not allowed to immediately ask the most obvious question.
With that kind of play to deal with, you need a more risk-taking production that the straight-up affair mounted by director Steve Scott, which is certainly competent and clear but, in the final analysis, overly contained and predictable. The same could be said of the visual look of the show, which is etched in broad strokes.
Subtlety certainly emerges in the stretches when McMonagle and Butler pull up close to each other. At Saturday's matinee, these justly well-loved actresses formed a warm bond with an audience that was clearly appreciative of how deep Butler was willing to dig. The piece is at its best when the title character finally sings the songs that Susannah thinks she wants to find — you start to see the reluctant performer overtaken by the painful beauty of her heritage and a musicologist's thrill of discovery — even if she has missed the most important truth of all. You just wish all the other vexing stuff would just get out of the way and lay all that bare.
When: Through Feb. 19
Where: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $25-$60 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.org