Collaborative Art Effort Leads to Cultural Exchange

Roz White plays Alberta "Pearl" Johnson in Black Pearl Sings! directed by Thomas W. Jones II.

By Kaylan Ware, Howard University News Service

The Alliance for New Music-Theatre, the Library of Congress and Duke Ellington School of the Arts are partnering to produce “Black Pearl Sings!” a play created by Frank Higgins.

The show is scheduled to run from April 17 to May 4 at the Universalist National Memorial Church in D.C. which hosts many arts showings in its downstairs theatre space.

“Black Pearl Sings!” is set in Texas during the Depression. It tells the story of two women, a Library of Congress librarian and an African-American woman, that come together to reach their goals while uncovering historical music and its origins.

“This is a very close to me,” leading actor Roz White said. “My great grandmother used to take me to South Carolina every summer, and so I got to kind of understand the country life. What I didn’t understand was that there was a direct connection to Africa when I was growing up. Now that I understand that the Gullah people make up about 75 percent of the African American population in the United States, I realized that that is like my heritage and the craftsmanship.”

The D.C. native plays Alberta ‘Pearl’ Johnson, a leading role she previously took on at MetroStage in 2016.

White is an actress, vocalist and teaching artist. She currently serves as a teaching artist at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, her alma mater. In addition to instructing musical theater classes, she works on outside projects like “Black Pearl Sings!”

Susan Galbraith serves as the New Music-Theatre artistic director.

“The Alliance for New-Music Theatre started this workshop for composers, writers and performers and the idea is to encourage and push each other into two new permutations of music theaters across the spectrum,” Galbraith said.

Despite typically being in the audience as an artistic director, she is returning to the stage for her role as librarian Susannah.

“I grew up in Asia, so a lot of that was theater that combined dance music and theater, which most theater in Asia does,” Galbraith said. “So, I’m always interested in cross cultural collaboration and which in a way, this piece is, because the Gullah traditions is such an old unbroken tradition for African Americans.”

White and Galbraith collaborated with director Thomas W. Jones to capture their characters’ movement, dialect, emotions and more. He works to construct their rehearsal space and discusses his visions of final elements of the production.

“In terms of music theater in general, I’m a writer. I’m a director. I’m a performer,” Galbraith said. “But what I love is the collaboration aspect, it’s putting different minds together, different perspectives together. Tom has such a great sensibility for choreography and stage pictures.”

To prepare for their roles, White and Galbraith both performed their own research.

“I watch documentaries, listen to sounds, read, study images,” White said. “I love images and I’m just kind of immerse myself in the culture of the pieces.”

Galbraith traveled to South Carolina where White spent time as a child.

“I visited the islands, also in Charleston where a lot of the Gullah women sell their baskets,” Galbraith said. “I [was able to] hear some of the language. I’ve been to the library of Congress, which has some excellent collections, all kinds of things, particularly the Gullah songs and also about the Lomax collections, which is one of their big collections.”

Through this piece and because of her experience living in several Asian countries, Galbraith hopes to assist with the instruction of multiethnic cultures, which she finds do not receive much attention or value among youth in China.

“I see the power of this story is helping them to think about that without sort of shaking my finger in their face, which is very delicate as you can imagine,” she said.