The story of Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, is a classic American parable: A musician from a very early age, Ledbetter was unknown outside West Texas until 1933, when the great musicologist John Lomax found him in a Louisiana prison serving time for attempted murder. (It was his third prison term; he had previously secured a pardon by writing a song for the governor of Texas.) Lomax recorded Ledbetter singing hundreds of songs, helped him secure an early release and eventually took him on tour. The tour didn't go well, and the two parted ways; Ledbetter never achieved the commercial success he desired, despite his enormous influence in the American folk movement.
It's a great tale, and one that merits dramatization, but it is not the story you will see in Black Pearl Sings. Playwright Frank Higgins, who apparently didn't think the tensions of race and class were sufficiently complex, throws sex in the mix as well. In his version, Lomax becomes Susannah Mullally, a folklorist for the Library of Congress who, despite her wealthy upbringing, has been passed over for professorships in favor of less deserving men. She discovers Alberta "Pearl" Johnson in a Texas prison, sentenced for Bobbitizing her abusive lover, and persuades Johnson to record the pre-Civil War songs that only she knows. Together, they unsubtly grapple with every dilemma of the early 20th century.
Both Lena Kaminsky, as Mullally, and Chavez Ravine, as Johnson, turn in commendable performances. Kaminsky nails the insensitive brashness endemic to ambitious, indignant academics. It is a wonder she ever manages to hold focus, however, against Ravine's quivering fury and gorgeous singing. The play is worth attending for the music alone, which is good, because Higgins' unfortunate tendency to overwrite means it has little else to offer. We don't need Pearl to wonder aloud if she should trust Mullally with he song her ancestors brought from Africa—we just need her to sing it. Mullally shouldn't tell us how the sexist snobbery of her male peers makes her feel. Kaminsky's taut shoulders and weary eyes say it all. Higgins' insistence on telling made me feel like I was in kindergarten. Pearl should sing more, and talk a lot less.
SEE IT: Black Pearl Sings is at Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700, pcs.org. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturdays-Sundays. Through June 17. $36-$51.