In the 1930s and 40s, the infectiously joyful Sister Rosetta Tharpe took gospel music out of churches, into nightclubs and on to concert stages backed by big bands. What had been strictly religious became mainstream. The groundbreaking performer appealed to rhythm and blues audiences influencing not only fellow purveyors of the material but also the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Tharpe heard Marie Knight singing backup for Mahalia Jackson in New York and invited her to go on the road. They toured almost ten years before popularity waned and her protégé tried to crossover to popular music. It would be another ten years before a resurgence of the blues, including gospel, saw Tharpe once again in demand. She died in 1973 of diabetes complications and according to this play, was buried in an unmarked grave. I can find no confirmation of this.
Marie and Rosetta is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Knight and Tharpe, with some sketchy biography and a great deal of gospel performance, soulful and rousing. Both Kecia Lewis (Marie) and Rebecca Naomini Jones (Tharpe) sing (well) to invisible accompaniment by the excellent Felicia Collins-guitar and Deah Harriott-piano. It should be noted to their credit the onstage actresses actually appear to be playing.
As written, Marie is a young wife with a husband and two children whose high church background makes her at first object to the new employer’s take on disseminating the word of God. She’s been raised with the threat of sin, feels Tharpe makes the music sound “dirty”, and is more accustomed to traditional artists like Jackson whose name comes up more than once. The supposition plays well. Both women have genuine faith. Tharpe gradually wins Marie over to what her mother calls music “with hips” and they have a helluva time performing some of her best known numbers together.
We hear about Tharpe’s childhood start with an evangelistic singing group in which “Mother Bell” (Katie Bell Nubin) performed. Allusions to such as The Dorsey Band and The Cotton Club are alas, given short shrift. Prejudice is well illustrated not only by dialogue, but also a funeral home in Mississippi where they find themselves bunking for lack of accommodations. Tharpe, ready to curl up in a coffin, appreciates space and silence. Knight’s reaction elicits the reality of touring in a segregated south.
Reference to a succession of unsuccessful marriages, including a preacher with whom Tharpe travelled gives Knight an opportunity to admit she did the same and for her boss to be maternal. They grow close.
Then there’s a sea change. We’re not exactly where or when we thought we were. The idea is good, the transition bumpy, dialogue less secure. Marie and Rosetta is musically entertaining and well written to that point. Both actresses do a fine job, with Rebecca Naomi Jones excelling in the outsized, yet devout role. Lyrics resonate. Jones can be as moving as she can be irresistibly euphoric.
Director Neil Pepe does an adroit job of giving the women small natural business and of indicating changes in their relationship. Maria’s lightening switch from being awed to obstreperous is a bit unbelievable, while her unexpectedly taking to the new musical approach feels real. Rosetta is warm and well etched. Pacing is deft.
The preparation room of Walter’s funeral home Set by Riccardo Hernandez manages to seem accurate, ignominious, and innately spooky. Dede M. Ayite’s Costumes seem exactly right. SCK Sound does an excellent job with dense music emanating from elsewhere.
Photography by Ahron R. Foster
Marie and Rosetta by George Brant
Directed by Neil Pepe
Featuring Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis
Atlantic Theater Company
330 West 20th Street
Through October 16, 2016