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Highlighted by beautiful, a cappella renditions of little known American folk songs, this play tells the Depression-era story of two extraordinary women: a gifted singer stuck in a Texas prison and the Library of Congress song collector who is determined to introduce her silky voice and steely spirit to the world.

JANUARY 13, 2012 - FEBRUARY 18, 2012

A powerful new play featuring Northlight favorites E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle!

Highlighted by beautiful, a cappella renditions of little known American folk songs, this play tells the Depression-era story of two extraordinary women: a gifted singer stuck in a Texas prison and the Library of Congress song collector who is determined to introduce her silky voice and steely spirit to the world.


Running time approx. 2hr 15min

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Black Pearl Sings!

Backstage with BJ

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OPENING Black Pearl Sings! (Call for tickets)

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Salon Series

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The Real-Life Inspiration for the characters Susannah and Pearl:

John Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter

John Avery LomaxMusicologist John Lomax was an American teacher and folklorist who did much for the preservation of American folk songs. Lomax grew up in central Texas. As a nine-year-old, Lomax met and became close friends with one of his father's hired farmhands, Nat Blythe, a former slave. Lomax credits this friendship as the pivotal moment in his life. In exchange for teaching Blythe to read and write, he taught Lomax songs and dance steps.  While studying American folklore at Harvard University's graduate school, Lomax's life was further influenced when a professor advised that collectors go out into the countryside to collect ballads firsthand.

Lomax met Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter in the summer of 1933 while touring Texas prisons in search of material for his latest work, an anthology of African-American ballads and folksongs. Lomax used Lead Belly's contribution to preservation of this music to sway the Louisiana Governor to release Lead Belly on parole. The partnership between Lomax and Lead Belly changed their lives forever.

Lomax and Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter was born on a plantation in northwest Louisiana. When he was five years old his uncle gave him his first instrument, an accordion. Ledbetter learned the guitar at age 15 and swiftly gained popularity for his talents. He played for audiences from Shreveport, Louisiana to Dallas, Texas. His career was cut short after suffering from a serious illness.

By 1912 Ledbetter was back in Dallas and playing with Blind Lemon Jefferson, a blind singer/guitarist who would become the most commercially successful bluesman of his time. Known for his temper, Ledbetter had numerous run-ins with the law between 1915 and 1930. In 1915, Ledbetter was sentenced to a chain gang for carrying a pistol. He escaped before his sentence was completed. He was arrested again in 1918 for killing a relative in a fight over a woman. Lead Belly was pardoned after writing a song to the Governor asking for his freedom. Ledbetter was finally sent to the notorious State Penitentiary of Louisiana - Angola Prison - for attempted homicide after he knifed a man in a fight.


Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter

Ledbetter continued to play his guitar, gaining a reputation that earned him an audience with folklorist John A. Lomax when he arrived in search of "Negro work songs." Lomax was able to prove Ledbetter's national significance to the Louisiana Governor and swing Ledbetter's parole. In December 1934, Ledbetter famously performed at the national Modern Language Association (MLA) meeting in Philadelphia. Ledbetter went onto a fifteen-year career as an independent artist, championed and assisted by John Lomax's son, Alan.

CONTEXT:The character of Susannah in Black Pearl Sings! is based on real-life folklorist John Avery Lomax, and Pearl is based on real-life musician, Huddie Ledbetter. Like Pearl, Ledbetter contributed heavily to the preservation of African-American folk music.


Women in Prison

"We say that a [female prisoner] is worse, but we judge her so by comparison with the ideal of woman, not with a common ideal." -Estelle B. Freedman, author of Their Sisters' Keepers

Women in Prison Prison Women Women's Prison Prison Farm

Gender studies have been conducted, questioning whether a woman can commit the same crimes as a man. In general, these studies have concluded that members of both sexes would commit the same crimes. Instead, class is more important than sex in the making of a criminal. For example, in workhouses, women and men "come from similar environments, possess the same moral standards, and the life of both sexes within the group is upon the same plane" (Their Sisters' Keepers).


The women's reformatory movement did much to improve the way female prisoners were treated. Before the 1930s, female convicts were housed with men and under the supervision of male guards. Female prisoners were often relegated to the attics and basement of prisons. Prison health systems were not even properly equipped to handle women's health issues such as pregnancy or gynecological exams.


Following the Civil War. racism continued to influence prisoner populations powerfully. The proportions of African American prisoners rose in the Northeast and Midwest. The previously white dominated prisons in the South became overrun with newly freed slaves post Emancipation. This discrimination was particularly hard on female African American prisoners. Whereas white female prisoners were beginning to see an improvement in their treatment during the 1930s, African American women were stilled viewed as "masculine" due to their race and therefore treated like male convicts.


CONTEXT: In Black Pearl Sings! Susannah meets Pearl in a women's prison in Texas.

Women Music Collectors

Women were among the earliest collectors of ethnographic materials in the United States and around the world. Women collectors at the beginning of the twentieth century were pioneers in the field of ethnographic documentation and traveled independently to places such as Mexico, American Samoa, and the Arctic Circle. By conducting research in the field, these women were venturing into scholarly territory previously occupied almost exclusively by men.



Laura Boulton Ethnomusicologist Laura Boulton participated in more than twenty expeditions in her effort to document the music of various world cultures. Between 1930 and 1950, Boulton recorded on five continents. She assembled a collection rich in the traditional vocal music of Canada, Africa, Southeast Asia, American Indians, and Eskimos.


Zora Neale Hurston

In 1935, folklorist and writer Zora Neale Hurston and New York University professor Mary Elizabeth Barnicle joined forces with Alan Lomax (John Lomax's son) to document African American song traditions in Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas. Their field research explored the relationship between the music they recorded and antecedents from Africa and pre-emancipation America.


Sidney Cowell The California Folk Music Project was created by Sidney Robertson Cowell. She was a folk song collector, who described herself as a woman who "traveled 300,000 miles alone with her dog and recording machine." The government paid her to travel to regions where folklore was least explored. Cowell made several thousand recordings, which are housed in the Archive of American Folksong at the Library of Congress.


CONTEXT: In Black Pearl Sings! Susannah travels the United States, collecting folk songs. In 1930s America, many women were traveling the country collecting folklore.



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Alana Arenas E. Faye Butler (Pearl) returns home to Northlight where credits include: Ella, Dinah Was, and three seasons of her New Year's Eve cabaret. She recently completed Trouble in Mind and Oklahoma at Arena Stage (Washington DC). National/Regional Tours: Dinah Was, Ain't Misbehavin, Mamma Mia, Nunsense, Nunsense 2, Don't Bother Me. Regional Theatre: Polk County, Crowns (Arena Stage); Saving Aimee, Gospel According to Fishman (Signature Theatre); Trouble in Mind, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Once on This Island, Caroline or Change (Centerstage); The Wiz (La Jolla Playhouse); Purlie (Pasadena Playhouse); Trouble in Mind (Yale Repertory); Ma Rainey (Philadelphia Playhouse); Ella (Dallas Theatre Center); The Wizard of Oz (Arkansas Repertory). Chicago credits: Goodman, Broadway Playhouse, Court, Steppenwolf, Drury Lane, Marriott Lincolnshire, Chicago Shakespeare. Later this year: Crowns (Goodman), Blues (Washington Ballet), The Great Gatsby (Kennedy Center and La Habana Cuba). Awards: Chicago's 2011 Leading Lady Award conferred by The Sarah Siddons Society, 6 Jeffs, 3 Black Theatre Alliance, After Dark, John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, RAMI, Excellence in the Arts, and Ovation.


Paige Collins
Susie McMonagle (Susannah) was just seen at Northlight in Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook.  Broadway: Fantine in Les Miserables. First National tours: Billy Elliot (Mrs. Wilkinson and Mum). Other National Tours include Mamma Mia (Donna), Les Miserables (Fantine), The Secret Garden and The Sound of Music. Chicago credits include: At Wits End (Jane Grant) and Sideshow (Daisy) at Northlight, Rock n Roll (Candida) at the Goodman, and Man of La Mancha (M. Bane) at Court. Additional Chicago credits: Indian Ink (Flora), Dirty Blonde (Mae), Spitfire Grill (Shelby), Annie Get Your Gun (Annie), Miss Saigon (Ellen), Anything Goes (Reno), Cats (Grizabella), Evita (Eva Peron) and Chess (Florence). Recipient of After Dark Awards, Critic's Circle Award, and nine Joseph Jefferson nominations. BFA Stephens College. Proud Mom to Jack and Elliot, happy wife to Dan.



Steve Scott (Director) is the Associate Producer of the Goodman Theatre, where he has overseen over 150 productions; he is also a member of the Goodman's Artistic Collective. He has directed at a wide variety of Chicago theaters, including the Goodman, Shattered Globe, Silk Road, Next, Porchlight, Theatre Wit, Theatre at the Center, Organic Touchstone, Lifeline, Redtwist, and Eclipse, where he is a company member. He is a faculty member of Act One Studio and the Theatre Conservatory at the College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University, and has served on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, and Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs. He is an artistic associate of About Face, Collaboraction and Chicago Dramatists, and serves on the board of Season of Concern. Mr. Scott has received five Jeff nominations, an After Dark Award, and the Award of Honor from the Illinois Theatre Association.


Jack Magaw (Scenic Design) Other Chicago area and regional theatre design credits include The Who and the What (La Jolla Playhouse), Joan of Arc (Chicago Opera Theatre), Clybourne Park and Beneatha's Place (Centerstage), A Raisin in the Sun (Milwaukee Rep), Little Gem (City), Romeo and Juliet and The Foreigner (Kansas City Rep), Sunday in the Park with George and The Game's Afoot (Peninsula Players), Hedda Gabler and The Letters (Writers). Eight Jefferson Award nominations include designs for The Caretaker (Writers), The Whipping Man (Northlight), and Disgraced (American Theatre Company). Upcoming projects: The Who and the What (Lincoln Center Theatre - LCT3) and Awake and Sing! (Olney). Jack is married to director Kimberly Senior and teaches design at The Theatre School at DePaul University. www.jackmagaw.com

Emily McConnell (Costume Design) is thrilled to be working with the Northlight team for the first time. Since receiving her MFA in Costume and Set Design from Northwestern, she has designed all over Chicago, for companies such as Dog & Pony (Roadkill Confidential), Gift Theatre (Suicide Incorporated), Steep Theatre (Lakeboat, Hollow Lands, In Arabia...), Theatre Mir, American Theatre Company, Remy Bumppo, Griffin Theatre and About Face. She has also served for the last several years as Head Costume Designer for the National High School Institute - Theatre Arts (aka Cherubs) and spends most of her time as the Costume Designer for Roosevelt University's Chicago College of the Performing Arts.


Sarah Hughey (Lighting Design) is pleased to be working with Northlight! Chicago credits include work with Court, Writers, House, Chicago Children's Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, About Face, Fox Valley Rep, Steep, Lifeline, Provision, A Red Orchid, Lookingglass, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Sarah is the resident lighting designer for Silk Road Rising (Jeff Award - Lighting, Scorched). She is the 2013 recipient of Chicago's Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award. Sarah earned her MFA from Northwestern University and teaches lighting design at Northwestern and Columbia College.


Christopher Kriz (Sound Design) works nationally as a composer and sound designer. Previous Northlight Theatre designs include Eclipsed. In Chicago, Chris has designed for companies including Writers Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Victory Gardens Theater, Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, Gift Theatre Company, and TimeLine Theatre Company. Some recent Chicago credits include Yellow Moon and The Letters (Writers), Homecoming 1972 (Chicago Dramatists), The Rainmaker (First Folio), Mine (Gift), and The City and The City (Lifeline). Chris has received 9 Joseph Jefferson nominations and 2 awards, most recently Best Sound Design for Turn of the Screw (First Folio). Upcoming productions include Rough Crossing (First Folio), Hedda Gabler (Writers), and The Great God Pan (Next). Chris is a proud member of United Scenic Artists Local 829. To hear more of his work, please visit www.christopherkriz.com.


Maggie Brown (Music Consultant)


Rita Vreeland (Production Stage Manager) Recent credits elsewhere in the Chicagoland area include Little Shop of Horrors and many other productions at Theatre at the Center; the annual Christmas Schooner (Mercury); and the world premieres of A Twist of Water (Route 66), El Nogalar (Goodman), and We Are Proud to Present... (Victory Gardens). In addition to stage management, Rita was the set designer at Harold Washington College from 2001-2012, and is a member of the Route 66 Theatre Company in Chicago. She is the proud wife of actor Tom Hickey and mom to one-year-old Charlie.


Frank Higgins (Playwright) is the author of The Sweet By 'n' By which was produced with Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow. His work has been seen in New York, and at the Williamstown Theater Festival, the Old Globe Theatre, Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, San Jose Repertory Theatre, Kansas City Repertory Theater, and many others. Among his other plays are WMKS: Where Music Kills Sorrow, Gunplay, and Miracles. Several scenes from Gunplay were read on Capitol Hill prior to Congress passing the ‘Brady Bill.' He has also written several plays for young audiences, including Anansi the Spider and The Middle Passage which received a national tour with the Omaha Theatre Company for Young People; and The Country of the Blind. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

Highlighted by beautiful, a cappella renditions of little known American folk songs, this play tells the Depression-era story of two extraordinary women: a gifted singer stuck in a Texas prison and the Library of Congress song collector who is determined to introduce her silky voice and steely spirit to the world.


Photos by Starbelly Studios

Photo Gallery

Click on any image to start the slideshow  Click on images to start slideshow

Alberta "Pearl" Johnson (E. Faye Butler) and Susannah Mullally (Susie McMonagle)Pearl and SusannahPearlPearl and SusannahPearl and SusannahPearl and SusannahPearl and SusannahPearl and SusannahPearl and SusannahPearl and Susannah
SusannahPearl and SusannahPearlPearl and SusannahPearl

Pay Me My Money Down

Pay Me My Money Down
Trouble So Hard
Jazz musician and music educator Maggie Brown

Critic's Choice: Northlight's soulful 'Black Pearl Sings!' connects


January 25, 2012



Director Steve Scott brings together two veteran Chicago area actors - Susie McMonagle and E. Faye Butler - for this triumphal production.


McMonagle plays Susannah Mullally, a competitive ethnomusicologist from the Library of Congress who travels the country capturing a capella renditions of rare folk songs on her bulky recorder so they're not lost to history. While Susannah has an affinity for these old tunes, she's also ambitious and sees her research efforts as a possible steppingstone to a position at an Ivy League college.


Butler takes on the role of Alberta "Pearl" Johnson, a feisty black prisoner confined to a Texas jail for the past decade. Her strong, expressive voice, whether she's singing work songs, a religious spiritual or a ditty she learned as a child from her grandparents, convinces Susannah she has struck gold.


Read the full review on LakeCountyJournals.com


'Black Pearl Sings!' at Northlight Theatre | Theater review

January 25, 2012


Clutching a Union-blue neckerchief stained with her grandfather's blood, newly released Texas inmate Pearl (E. Faye Butler) sings a tribal melody that unites her with the spirits of those she's lost. In Frank Higgins's Depression-era 2007 drama, music isn't just entertainment, it's a doorway to the past. Susannah (Susie McMonagle) is a white Library of Congress song collector who works to chronicle these pieces of American history before they're lost forever; Pearl's knowledge of African-American music is the edge she needs to finally achieve her goal of finding a song "stronger than slavery chains."


Susannah agrees to help Pearl look for her daughter in exchange for song recordings, and the two women form a bond through their love of music. Higgins uses their relationship to explore a range of social, political and racial issues, but the play loses momentum when it veers away from the music. The script can be heavy-handed at times, but the actors' sincerity compensates for the clunky storytelling.


Butler and McMonagle flawlessly perform the play's songs, with Butler showing off her astounding vocal versatility while McMonagle reveals her proficiency with the dulcimer. Familiar folk songs and hymns are given new strength in Butler's voice; her charisma becomes contagious in a second-act call-and-response sequence.


Read the review on TimeOutChicago.com




'Black Pearl Sings!' - Highly Recommended

January 24, 2012
by Tom Williams


I can't remember when I've seen a finer two-handed that E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle performed and Steve Scott directed. The work is filled with heart, truth and emotional fuel nicely expressed with sharp dialogue and richly underscored by emotionally deep a cappella singing by McMonagle and Butler. This is a gem of a play that will renew your faith in humanity.


Read the full review on ChicagoCritic.com





E. Faye Butler loving her 'edgy' character in 'Black Pearl Sings!'


January 18, 2012
By Mary Houlihan


Incredibly, E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle, two Chicago musical theater veterans, have never worked together. But that's about to change with Northlight Theatre's staging of Frank Higgins' "Black Pearl Sings!"


Directed by Steve Scott, the Depression-era story revolves around the tentative relationship, and eventual friendship, that grows between Pearl, an African-American woman serving time in a Texas prison, and Susannah, a song collector for the Library of Congress, who overhears Pearl singing.


"Black Pearl Sings!," a play with music, features a cappella renditions of rare African-American songs and touches on issues including race, gender, class and the significance and ownership of old songs.


Higgins has said the characters were inspired by real life musicologist John Avery Lomax and guitarist Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter.


Butler took a few moments from a busy rehearsal schedule to offer her thoughts on the play, the music and Pearl.


Question: What's your take on Pearl?

E. Faye Butler: Pearl is a tough woman who's gone through a lot of struggles. She just wants her life and her family back, and she'll do whatever it takes to achieve that. She knows who she is; she knows where she comes from; and she's very, very proud of it. She's shrewd, strong and defiant against all odds.


Q. Do you like playing characters with an edge?

EFB: Yes, because they challenge you. So many people have a tendency to see me in shows that are sometimes light and fluffy as in some of the musicals I do. But this is nice because it goes against that image.


Q. What's the biggest challenge with the songs Pearl sings?

EFB: You're not supposed to sound good. You have to keep it kind of ragged. The biggest notes I've gotten from Steve are that this woman is not a singer; she's not a performer. She just happens to possess a lot of songs that this woman wants.


Q. Were you already familiar with the songs?

EFB: Yes, I grew up with this music and know the history behind the songs. I have a 101-year-old grandmother who had a grandmother who was a slave. The songs have been passed on down through generations of family.


Q. How does performing the songs a cappella compare to musical theater work?

EFB: Actually it's easier. I can stay in the moment as an actor and not have to flip and listen to a pitch or an instrument or timing. I can do the songs the way I want to do them.


Q. So, it's a different sort of challenge for you when you perform in a play vs. a musical?

EFB: Actually, I like a play better because that's what I initially studied in school. Musicals pay the bills; plays feed the artist in me.


Q. What's the biggest challenge in portraying Pearl?

EFB: I think it's just staying true to the period and the piece. It's not always easy to be on stage and be kind of naked and ugly. Spending the first act with a scarf on your head and in chains and shackles is challenging. All you have to depend on is yourself and the script. That's what attracted me to the role. It's all about the artistry. There's no smoke and mirrors in this show.


Read the story on ChicagoSunTimes.com




Two strong women bond through music

by Myrna Petlicki
January 17, 2012


"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.



Read the complete story on SunTimes.com

The Black Pearl Sings! Study Guide is available in PDF format.  Click here to download.


View the Black Pearl Sings! stagebill online.

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