Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The San Jose Repertory Theatre is currently presenting BLACK PEARL SINGS! as written by Frank Higgins and directed by Rick Lombardo.

The play is one story derived from a plethora of similar stories compiled during a government program established in 1936 to collect and catalogue America’s musical folklore.

The fictitious Susannah Mullally (marvelously played by Jessica Wortham) is based on the historical persona John Lomax: a Texan who traveled the country with 315 pounds of recording equipment stashed in the trunk of his car.

Lomax operated under the assumption that prisoners, due to their isolation, remained largely uninfluenced by radio and the contemporary music of their times.

The music of prisoners would more faithfully date back to the slavery ear or even to the pre-slavery era in West Africa.

In his search for uncorrupted Africa music, Lomax met Huddie Ledbetter in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Huddie had been languishing in prison since he was 21; show casing his talent to the governor, Lomax engineered Huddie’s early release and the two of them immediately sprinted off to New York City.

Given his prodigious talent and Lomax’s management, Huddie quickly ascended to become the 12-string folk and blues legend Lead Belly.

Frank Higgins has borrowed generously from the miraculously serendipitous Lead Belly – Lomax story; retooling it into the Black Pearl – Mullally story.

While Lead Belly’s musical influence stemmed from the Mississippi delta and Shreveport, Louisiana, Pearl’s tradition was Gullah: from the South Carolina barrier islands and the Lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia.

Gullah is arguably the most undisturbed African-American cultural tradition.

Lomax got Lead Belly to perform in prison garb in New York and likewise, Mullally directs Pearl Johnson to do the same.

Art has a way of imitating life.

Pearl reluctantly capitulates to Mullally’s demands as her musical manager even though Pearl trusts that Mullally can help her reunite with her daughter and give her the means to raise her granddaughter.

Pearl does not give in easily: Pearl chaffs under Mullally’s yoke and bucking at nearly every staging suggestion Mullally makes.

Mullally made have garnered Pearl’s freedom from a Texas prison, by Pearl immediately relinquishes a portion of that freedom, by stepping into the reins wielded by well meaning Mullally.

The bristling, halting, resistant of Pearl to the best intentions of Mullally provides the grist for this show.

Having gained her freedom from prison, Pearl assumes an even greater challenge of preserving her identity and autonomy.

BLACK PEARL SINGS! is a heart-warming profile of desperation growing into trust and friendship.

Every performance is likely to earn a standing ovation: it is not to be missed.

Now through September 26th, tickets can be purchased via or 408-367-7255.