'Black Pearl Sings' to play at Clarence Brown

Susan Shunk, left, and  Tracey Copeland Halter enjoy rehearsing a song from Clarence Brown Theatre's 'Black Pearl Sings.'

Susan Shunk, left, and Tracey Copeland Halter enjoy rehearsing a song from Clarence Brown Theatre's "Black Pearl Sings."

'Black Pearl Sings'

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23-25, Feb. 29-March 3, March 7-10; 2 p.m. Feb. 26, March 4 & March 11nWhere: Clarence Brown Theatre, UT campus

Tickets: Feb. 23 preview $20 adult, $17 senior citizens, $10 UT faculty/staff, $12 non-UT student, free UT student; Feb. 24 opening $40 adult, $35 senior, $20 non-UT student, $5 UT student; Wednesday/Thursday show $25 adult, $19 senior, $12 UT faculty/staff or non-UT student, $5 UT student; Friday/Saturday/Sunday show $30 adult, $25 senior, $15 UT faculty/staff or non-UT student, $5 UT student

The Clarence Brown Theatre's upcoming production of "Black Pearl Sings" requires only two actors. But the play demands a lot from each as it tells the story of two very different women who discover they need each other for social acceptance.

"Black Pearl Sings" previews Feb. 23 and opens Feb. 24 and plays on select dates through March 11 at the University of Tennessee theater. The play is recommended for patrons who are high school age and older.

While there are only two actors on stage, the music that fills "Black Pearl Sings" is a character itself and one pivotal to the story's plot. Twenty-one songs or parts of songs are incorporated into the play set in the Great Depression. They include a cappella performances of African-American spirituals and folk songs. Among them are "This Little Light of Mine," "Kum Ba Yah," "Pay Me My Money Down," "Little Sally Walker" and "Troubles So Hard."

The majority — 16 — of those songs are sung by Tracey Copeland Halter. The UT assistant acting professor plays the title role of Black Pearl and describes herself as "an actor who sings."

The play's other character, Susannah Mullally, is played by Susan Shunk. It's Shunk's first time at Clarence Brown. "Black Pearl Sings" director Kate Buckley, a UT theater professor, had worked with Shunk before and cast her in the role.

"I read it and I said, 'I love this play,' " Shunk said.

Frank Higgins' play is partly based on teacher and folklorist John Lomax's 1933 discovery of blues musician Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter in a Louisiana prison farm as well as the documentary "The Language You Cry" that traces a song sung by slaves in Georgia to one still sung by African women.

In the play, Susannah is a white woman looking for success in a 1933 academic world dominated by men. She's a song collector for the Library of Congress. Her goal is to find an African-American song that can be traced directly back to Africa. Such a find, she believes, would be her ticket to her desired job at an Ivy League college. That quest leads her to a Texas prison to meet Pearl, an African-American woman with a powerful voice who is serving a jail sentence for murder.

Impressed by Pearl, Susannah arranges for her parole and takes her on a singing tour. Pearl has more than one reason to get out of prison. She needs to find her daughter and needs the money the tour would provide to do so.

As the play unfolds, the two women walk a fine line with exploitation and exposure as they change each other.

"Susannah learns a lot about herself. Her life changes, her ideas change, her views of the world change by getting to know Pearl," says Shunk.

"That happens to Pearl, too," says Halter.

"Black Pearl Sings" requires chemistry between its only two actors as well as individual stamina. Though Halter and Shunk didn't know each other before rehearsals, they found they have a good stage dynamic. Many of their acting styles and approaches are the same, says Halter.

And the mere fact that it's just the two of them, acting together and off each other, makes its own unique demands. "It's a big challenge," says Shunk. "It's a lot more stamina, a lot more work. You can't step offstage (while the play continues with other actors) to think about what it is you do or say next time."

"There's a lot of energy moving forward. No one can sit back," says Halter. "It's exhausting (for the actors.)"

And Halter may not be joking when she talks about her wardrobe. She says the girdle she wears later in the play may be worse than the literal ball and chain she must drag around as a 1930s prisoner.

"Black Pearl Sings" touches on issues that include civil rights, race, gender, ambition and friendship. "I think the (play's) complexity is what makes it strong," Shunk says.

And it's not without surprises. Those include the person Pearl killed.

"Just when you start to figure it (the play) out, something else happens," says Halter.

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