JAQUEA MAE AND JULIE BEROES IN ‘BLACK PEARL SINGS’ (Courier Photo by Erin Perry)
by Genea L. Webb
For New Pittsburgh Courier
When singer James Brown sang “This is a Man’s World,” he didn’t count on the folk singer Alberta Pearl Johnson, the persevering protagonist in Paul Higgins work, “Black Pearl Sings.”
The two-hour production focuses on the relentless perseverance of Alberta "Pearl" Johnson, an African-American woman who knows a treasure trove of African spirituals and folk songs and uses them to help her deal with the 10-year prison sentence she received for murdering her husband.
Pearl longs to leave prison and look for her orphaned daughter.
When Pearl meets Susannah, an academic and song collector for the Library of Congress who scours jails to find inmates who can record the soon-to-be-lost art form and keep it alive forever, the two women embark on a journey that teaches them about themselves and each other while walking a fine line between exposure and exploitation.
Susannah bargains for Pearl's parole and arranges for several private performances in New York City where Pearl is a hit and performs more than 100 performances of her beloved folk songs.
“It’s a play with music, which our audience likes and it is set during the Great Depression in 1933-34,” said Joyce Meggerson-Moore, New Horizon Chairperson when asked why the theater company decided to present the play as the second installment of its 21st season. “Our plays always have an historical basis that audience members can look up.
“The story flexuates from sadness to humor and the women get an appreciation for each other. It’s a powerful story—this is a woman in a man’s world and a Black woman in a White world. Pearl doesn’t know if Susannah is going to use her,” Meggerson- Moore continued.
The songs in “Black Pearl Sings” are beautifully sung little-known renditions of American Folk songs including “Kum Ba Yah,” “This Little Light of Mine” and “Do Lord, Remember Me.”
The unpredictability of Pearl is what made Jacquea Mae jump at the chance to make her first foray into a theater production.
“This was something I hadn’t done before,” said Mae, 24, who is currently working on two productions featuring soul and funk music and her first album. “Pearl is something of a challenge because she is going through struggles. Music can be a savior in a lot of ways and the folk music never lost its significance.”
Julie Elizabeth Beroes is happy to be returning to her Pittsburgh roots with this New Horizon Theater production and said she drew from the amazing work of fellow actress Diane Lane and the direction of play director Linda Haston to prepare to play Susannah Mullally.
“The story is compelling and poignant,” said Beroes who holds a BFA in theater arts with an emphasis in acting from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “Susannah is a woman in a man’s world who wants to better herself and prove herself. Even though it is set in 1933-34, the play is relevant today because there’s still imprisonment of women in many ways.”
The production, which will run at the Kingsley Association--6435 Frankstown Avenue in East Liberty--through March 3, is funded in part by grants from the Allegheny Regional Asset District, Chris Moore Communications, Inc., New Horizon Theater supporters, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.
Tickets for the performances are $20 with discounts for senior citizens and groups of 10 or more. People attending “Black Pearl Sings” on March 1 will be treated to a reception hosted by Jackie Dixon of Giant Eagle, which will include light refreshments served at 6:30 p.m. before “Black Pearl Sings” is presented at 7:30 p.m.
“People who are interested in supporting and helping the organization (business leaders, sororities, fraternities, organizations, social groups and church groups) can host a group on a specific night during the run of the play. Please call for information and dates. Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit the theater company and will help to continue to present live stage productions. Also, some of the proceeds will help pay for the outreach services to some underserved groups as they attend these live stage productions,” Meggerson-Moore said.
New Horizon Theater, Inc. was founded with the mission to bring consistent, high-quality cultural events, reflecting the African-American points of view, and to provide an ongoing venue for ethnic writers and performers to further their professional development. It was started by a core group of dedicated volunteers in 1992 and presented one production annually and gradually moved up to four productions a year in 1997.
Editor's Note: People attending “Black Pearl Sings” on March 1 will be treated to a reception hosted by Jackie Dixon of Giant Eagle at 6:30 p.m.
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