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KC Playwright Frank Higgins Inspired By A Story Of Prison And Redemption

Julie Denesha

Musicologist John Lomax set out to do field recordings in the early 1930s of African-American songs in the southern United States. With the help of his son, Alan, he recorded ballads, reels, work songs, and the blues – some were recorded in prisons. That’s where John Lomax met the guitar player Huddie Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly."

A version of this story – with two women as the lead characters – is the focus of the play Black Pearl Sings! written by prolific Kansas City playwright Frank Higgins.

Set in 1933, Black Pearl Sings! explores the relationship between Susannah (played by Vanessa Severo), a researcher from the Library of Congress, and Pearl (played by Nedra Dixon), an inmate in a Texas prison. The play has been produced at theaters around the country, like Chicago, Washington, D.C., Memphis, and Houston, but Spinning Tree Theatre's production marks the first in Kansas City. 

Higgins, who also teaches playwriting at UMKC, stopped by KCUR recently for an interview. 

In the play, nearly two dozen songs and spirituals are sung a cappella, including "Trouble So Hard," sung here by Nedra Dixon (as Pearl):  

That’s a pretty powerful song.

That is, it is. And she (Pearl)’s – let’s see, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers – but she’s got some musical accouterments with her that if she wants to she can use, so she’s in chains when she’s singing this.

One issue for this character (Pearl) is that her daughter is missing. And in this song, it references that loss.

Right, and it’s also a way, when you choose the songs and the version of songs, that you can help without overloading an audience with exposition. So there is a daughter, who plays a very important role in the play. But did she have another daughter, that she's referencing in the song?

When you have little flourishes like that, it saves you, because you as the writer can suggest rather than hit people over the head. There's nothing more deadly than too many facts in a play.

I'd read a little bit about how these songs were passed on from generation to generation. And I hadn’t really thought about the fact that it’s, in some ways, like the game, telephone – it’s as remembered.

Exactly. One of the reasons that I did not write a play about Lead Belly is that I was interested in writing it from a woman’s – women’s perspective. A grandmother sings songs to her granddaughter and then that little girl grows up and sings songs to her daughter and then her granddaughter, and that’s the way a lot of these songs are passed on.  The songs that we know that come from slavery times, well, Columbia Records didn't exist. So how do we know those songs? They're passed on within the family, usually through a matriarchal system. 

And so I was interested in that kind of idea, and also songs that, we do a couple of songs related to people’s jobs – you sing it in the rhythm that helps you churn the butter, or while you’re kneading bread … whatever you’re doing, that somehow singing the song turns drudgery into something that’s a passable activity. And also makes it easier for you to do that task, whatever that might be. That’s part of what Black Pearl Sings! is about.

Black Pearl Sings! draws on some of the experiences of John Lomax and Lead Belly, when Lead Belly was freed from prison and traveled the country performing and singing and sharing his songs. 

I think of the play as a duet, or a pas de deux even, if you want to think in dance terms. The song collector (Susannah) and Pearl, there’s a little bit of difference in their ages, and obviously huge differences in their backgrounds, and yet they become each other’s best friend. And it’s a symbiotic relationship. Pearl has things to offer, and vice versa, the song collector has power.

Things happen in the second act that are completely different from the first act. And it is the case that Pearl’s singing, and the songs that she knows can be brought to the public and powerful people … which is similar to Lomax and Lead Belly. John Lomax brings Lead Belly to New York – that’s how we know the name Lead Belly, is those recordings and in that kind of cultural splash that Lead Belly made in New York in the 30s.

And so Black Pearl Sings! deals with that, but also some differences that are inflected through these specific characters. To me, it’s a play about two women that do become friends. There’s a line in the play, “Whether you like it or not, I’m the best friend you've ever had.” That kind of tug, you know, the push and pull of a relationship between two people, and it's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is. That to me is part of the reason why you'd want to write a play. 

You talk about the playwriting process, and I'm just curious how that works for you. With this topic in particular, was it the idea of Lead Belly and Lomax and then it became these two characters in your mind?

Well, I'd always loved the music, and I'd always loved the milieu, and I'd always loved the larger subject matter of song collectors going out and trying to record songs before they disappear. So if you think of the 1930s, there are still people who are living who were slaves ... that, I thought, was just fascinating. 

And then what's also the case is authenticity of things. What is authentic and what isn't? Does something get prettied up for a kind of commercial presentation or not? Those are interesting issues — ideas of cultural ownership. 

The thing that I say when people ask me about writing their own plays, I always say, "Write the play you can't not write." And this was a play that I couldn't not write. 

So, are you someone who continues to work and re-work plays, or do you get to a point where you just have to let it go?

There’s a great quote from the French poet Paul Verlaine about poetry that no poem is ever finished, it’s abandoned. So I’ve been part of about six productions of Black Pearl Sings! and I’m at the point where I’m down to syllables – you know, “Oh, my gosh, one syllable too many!” I’ve chosen not to publish the acting version of the play yet. Maybe after this production at Spinning Tree Theatre …

It generally takes several productions, rather than one, I think, to see it different ways. And then you continue to make discoveries. 

Spinning Tree Theatre presents 'Black Pearl Sings!,' by Frank Higgins, through March 22, Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Penn Valley Drive, Kansas City, Mo. 

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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