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.