By Edith McCauley
By the climax of Black Pearl Sings! at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill., there is not a dry eye in the house. This magnificent play, written by Frank Higgins, is an adaptation of the work of John Avery Lomax, who in the 1930s collected the folk songs that are such a critical part of our heritage. Traveling to Louisiana, he recorded the music of Huddie Ledbetter, who became known as Lead Belly. The precious gift of all those who researched this music results in the true American genre we still hear today.
Higgins’ imaginative use of two women — E. Faye Butler as Pearl and Susan McMonagle as Susannah — is pure genius. Incorporating the prejudices of the time, their story becomes completely contemporary. Susannah comes to the Texas prison where Pearl is incarcerated to record her songs. As Butler enters the stage dragging her ball and chain, we realize how heartbreaking this story will be. Known for her glamour, the shabby prison garb identifies Pearl’s despair and hopelessness. Susannah probes her memory for the earliest songs, and it is with the greatest difficulty that they emerge.
Maggie Brown as the musical consultant has given Faye the authentic music of the Gullah people, the rare African-American traditional and folk songs, many of which are based on the memorable music of her father, Oscar Brown Jr. So much of what we hear is familiar, a result of the many fine artists of Chicago who helped preserve this music.
As Susannah battles to set Pearl free, we realize that as a woman, she faces almost insurmountable odds. By the second act, she and Pearl have traveled to New York. It is the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, and the songs become a part of that revival. Pearl’s primary goal is to find her lost daughter, and the story ends with a tragic loss. As she was singing her Gullah song and dancing an African dance, I could only think of how proud my dear Julian would be of this memorable achievement.
My friends James, Bill and I met with Faye following the performance. Our excitement filled her dressing room. She travels to Rockford every Monday to see to her grandmother, who is nearly101. Family ties run deep. Our longtime friendship has become an important part of my memories.
Black Pearl Sings! will definitely be a milestone in E. Faye Butler’s career. Closing Feb. 19, there is only a short time to see it. The Northlight Theatre is at 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, Ill. You can get further information by calling (847) 673-6300 or by going online at northlight.org.
E. Faye’s next project is an appearance at a Chicago club in her one-woman show, and in June she will be in Regina Taylor’s Crowns at the Goodman Theatre.
From the Feb. 8-14, 2012, issue