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

E. Faye Butler (left) Susie McMonagle star “Black Pearl Sings!” Northlight Theatre. | STARBELLY STUDIOS

E. Faye Butler (left) and Susie McMonagle star in “Black Pearl Sings!” at Northlight Theatre. | STARBELLY STUDIOS

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‘black pearl sings!’

† To Feb. 19

† Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

† Tickets, $25-$60

† (847) 673-6300;

Updated: February 21, 2012 8:15AM

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.

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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