Two strong women bond through music
E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle star in "Black Pearl Sings!" at Northlight Theatre.
‘Black Pearl Sings!’
Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7; 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays (no 1 p.m. show Feb. 1, no 7:30 p.m. show Feb. 8); 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays (except opening night, Jan. 20, is 7:30 p.m.); 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays (no 7 p.m. show on Jan. 22, Jan. 29 and Feb. 19), through Feb. 19
(847) 673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org
Updated: January 17, 2012 9:17PM
“Black Pearl Sings!” is not a musical. E. Faye Butler, who plays the title character in Frank Higgins’ play at Northlight Theatre, wants to make that perfectly clear.
“Pearl does not sing because she is a singer,” Butler explained. She sings because she hopes her songs will buy her freedom so she can search for her daughter.
Pearl is confined to a Texas prison for murder. It’s the Depression and everything looks bleak until Pearl sees a possible way out through Susannah, a Caucasian woman who is a song collector for the Library of Congress.
When Susannah overhears Pearl singing, she discovers that the inmate knows songs that Susannah desperately wants to collect. Pearl has no intention of giving away songs that were passed down from her ancestors in Africa when she might be able to use them to her advantage.
The songs become bargaining chips between the two women. “Every time Susannah gives Pearl what she wants, Pearl gives her another song — maybe,” Butler said. She holds back on the song Susannah wants most — the oldest song Pearl knows from West Africa.
“Pearl is a very strong woman who, against all odds, is going to make it. She’s going to persevere,” Butler said. “She’s very strong-willed. I think she was truly ahead of her time because she speaks her mind. She’s not afraid. She’ll fight for whatever is right.”
Susie McMonagle plays Susannah, another powerful character. “She is a very independent woman and strong willed, stubborn,” McMonagle said. “She really has a passion for music and heritage, and the importance of documenting it so it doesn’t die out.”
As she travels the country, Susannah “figures out that prisons are a great place to look for old songs,” McMonagle said. She winds up at Pearl’s prison, listening to woman after woman sing. Nothing clicks until she hears Pearl singing out in the work yard.
“I’m drawn to the fact that she’s got a great voice,” McMonagle said. “Then I realize that she’s old enough to have grandparents who were slaves. The more I dig into her story, the more I realize that she’s got potential for knowing some great old songs. There’s something in it for her and something in it for me, and we strike up this unique friendship which was certainly not of the time.”
Audiences will hear Butler sing, but mostly a cappella. All of the songs Pearl sings were familiar to Butler before she took the role. “As an African American, you can’t go to church and not know ‘Dear Lord, Remember Me,’ ‘I’ve Got the Keys to the Kingdom,’ ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Butler said. “Those are all songs we sang as children. They’re songs I heard my mother sing, my grandmother sing. It’s a part of our culture.”
McMonagle, another amazing vocalist, only sings a little bit in this show but she gets to play the autoharp. “I’ve been once a week schlepping down to the Old Town School of Folk Music for my autoharp lessons,” she reported.
Butler, who last appeared at Northlight in “Ella,” is a veteran of numerous musicals in the Chicago area and has also toured nationally in many musicals. This is the first nonmusical that Butler has done at Northlight so she’s hoping her fans won’t be disappointed.
“She’s got an amazing voice,” said McMonagle, who also has numerous local and touring musical theater credits. “I think a lot of people are fascinated and love to hear her sing but E. Faye to me is a truly amazing actor. That’s what makes her a great singer. It’s great to see her in this light because it is a tour de force acting role.”