"Why are you Baptist?" the character Susannah asks the title character in Frank Higgins' play with music, Black Pearl Sings!
"Because I heard the other churches sing," she replies.
And with that laugh line, you understand why Alberta "Pearl" Johnson, played by Liz Mikel in Jubilee Theatre's current production, must sing. It's her gift, and as essential as breathing. And boy, does Mikel use it.
Mikel has played the role before, in the play's area premiere at WaterTower Theatre in 2010. Hard to believe, but her performance has tightened, her grasp of its soul deepened. That production (directed by Terry Martin) featured music direction by Akin Babatunde, who arranged the black folk songs and spirituals Pearl sings for possibility of parole thanks to the musicologist Susannah, whose quest to find and record these songs brings her to a Texas prison in the 1930s.
Higgins was so taken with Babatunde's arrangements that he asked him to music direct several other productions across the country, including in Virginia and Oregon. That led to Babatunde directing the show in the fall of 2012 at the English Theatre in Vienna, Austria. His Jubilee stint marks his second time directing it. Higgins was in attendance at Jubilee on opening night.
Mikel's performance isn't the only thing that has tightened. So has Higgins' script. As much as I like the WaterTower production, the Jubilee staging is even more transcendent, because of Babatunde's direction and Mikel's immersed performance, not to mention the turn by Lana Hoover as Susannah, who puts a different stamp on the role than Diana Sheehan did at WaterTower.
Sheehan's portrait was lovely; the dedication her Susannah had to the objective was apparent. But Hoover adds a layer that makes the character even much more focused on this mission, and with an overriding fear of having her rivals in the field beat her to the punch. She may not ever be famous for her own voice, but she could be a legacy because of someone else's. She wants the world to know that Pearl is her "discovery." There's a burning sense of ambition that makes the character's arc more urgent and ultimately touching. Hoover's singing as she performs various American folk tunes is both lovely and, when called for, funny.
The question of discovery, of ownership, is especially strong given that when this show takes place, slavery in this country is not just a distant memory and the Civil Rights Movement has yet to take hold. When Pearl is released from prison and becomes a sensation to white, liberal New York society, all motives, no matter how well-intentioned, move solidly into that big, fuzzy, gray area in the middle. Are we all taking advantage of other people's talents and histories for our own gain?
Pearl's motivation is clear: Get out of prison and find her daughter. As she goes on that journey, your heart aches with every break of hers. Nothing conveys that as well as the deeply felt song performances, which range from spirituals ("Troubles So Hard") and slave songs ("No More Auction Block for Me") to folk ditties and bits of original, naughty fun ("Little Sally Walker" and "Don't You Feel My Leg").
Mikel, a member of the Dallas Theater Center's Brierley Resident Acting Company who was on Broadway in 2012 in Lysistrata Jones, is known for her deep, resonant pipes. Here, true to the style of the songs and the era, and with the guidance of Babatunde, she doesn't rely on vocal embellishments—just the power of the voice. Smartly, Babatunde added in the use of available objects as a rhythmic device, such as Pearl using keys and a letter opener for the clanging sound you hear in this performance of "Reap What You Sow," which TheaterJones recorded with Mikel. (Warning: you might have to turn down the volume on your computer.)
Need I say more about that voice?
Jubilee's production, which looks as terrific as it sounds (set by Michael Skinner, costumes by Barbara O'Donoghue), represents many happy returns: Mikel's return to Jubilee after many years (she played Bessie Smith there in the 1990s) and her return to this role; the show's return to North Texas; and Babatunde's return to directing it and to working with his longtime collaborator, Mikel.
It's a good guess that after seeing it the first time, you'll return to buying a ticket for you and your friends. It's worth every cent.