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
Imagine a play centered on boxing in which not a single punch visibly connects to a body, yet we feel every blow, in which character drives narrative and racially based conflict is without cliché. Playwright Marco Ramirez’s tightly written, enthralling “six rounds” are insightfully penned and placed in historical context based on actual events. The beautifully acted piece is helmed by inspired Director Rachel Chavkin, resulting in one of the most original productions I’ve seen in some time. Don’t shy away because of subject matter.
“And now the fight you came for. The fight you paid your well earned green for…” barks promoter Max (John Lavelle). Circuit boxer Jay Johnson (Khris Davis) is taking on a newbie nicknamed “Fish” (McKinley Belcher III). As he taunts the amateur with oddly benevolent good humor, we hear interjections by Max and trainer, Wynton (Clarke Peters). These are punctuated by the men’s synchronized claps which come and go within narrative like a Greek chorus.
Khris Davis and Clarke Peters
Instead of contact sport, we see the men move around sharing internal dialogue. “…Focus!…He’s all talk, He ain’t nothing…Breathe, Don’t lock…What’s that taste? Spit. Blood…a lamb to slaughter…” When blows connect, the aggressor literally stomps. Fish’s knock-out is indicated by Max and Wynton lifting and dropping the two heavy posts with rope between (one side of the ring) BOOM! One reflexively recoils.
His camp, admiring Fish’s perseverance and recognizing his potential, hire the boy as a sparring partner.
Jay Johnson is determined to fight the current World Heavyweight Champion who has since retired. Max insists he should continue outside the system, where, by greasing palms, he’s managed to provide a decent life. His fighter threatens to find another promoter.
When the deal is negotiated, against advice, Johnson agrees to give up 90 percent of the take “win or lose” for a shot at the title. The fight will be unprecedented – a black man in the ring with a white champ. Both current prejudice and the protagonist’s character are skillfully illuminated at a press conference.
Khris Davis, McKinley Belcher III, Clarke Peters
Discovering that guns and knives have been confiscated at the entrance to his fights, Johnson realizes a level of personal danger that apparently never occurred to him. Still, there’s no question of aborting the match. On the night of the event, however, his sister Nina (Montego Glover) unexpectedly shows up with evidence of threats to the family. She insists they’re already proud and wants him to walk away. We learn what may fuel Johnson’s anger and tenacity.
A conversation with Wynton, wherein reference to the play’s title becomes clear, wisely does not resolve Johnson’s thinking. Once in the ring, he’s told, you’re alone.
The fight itself is brilliantly conceived. Johnson’s demons actively confront him in a way you won’t be able to imagine without the clumsy help of a reviewer (not me). What ensues is emotionally painful and utterly gripping. Consequences are also wonderfully manifest with a pithy but not heavy handed touch.
Montego Glover, Khris Davis
There isn’t a weak link in the company. Though Max could be successfully portrayed as more exaggerated a character, actor John Lavelle is believable both with florid announcing and concern about the business of the business. McKinley Belcher III (Fish) is fully dimensional and entirely sympathetic, especially when encountering his first taste of luxury. As Wynton, Clarke Peters contributes palpably sage gravitas which balances volatility around him.
Montego Glover’s Nina is proud, stubborn, and articulate. (Ramirez has chosen to make the fighter and his sibling appear rather educated, a state not shared by the people on whom they were based. Perhaps, in fact, they were well spoken.) In her final scene, she spits well-aimed fire, then remains a potent presence.
Khris Davis’s powerful personification of Jay Johnson will resonate after applause dies out. The extremely fit thespian moves like a boxer. Davis tempers Johnson’s ego, inhabits his determination, and shares his thinking process with nuanced timing. The fact of his strength feels as true as eventual wrenching doubts. It’s manifestation of a whole man, “clarity of self in a hostile world.”
Director Rachel Chavkin (whose quote is just above), has taken a fine play and made it more compelling. Not only are her actors explicitly persuasive, but Chavkin’s creative interpretation is theatrically remarkable. Choreography embodying both internal and external battle is unique and accomplished. When actual boxing is depicted, practice is obvious. Synchronized sounds are vividly expressive. Staging area is aesthetically utilized.
Jack Johnson, on whom Jay is based
Nick Vaughan’s excellent set is comprised entirely of light wood slatted walls, floor and barriers on several well employed levels. Period gym lights and a wall of what appear to be fluorescents are graphic. Beginning with only two posts and a single side of roped ring, we tellingly progress to an entirely enclosed area at the final arena.
Costumes by Dede M. Ayite are low key and meticulously realized. Lighting by Austin R. Smith greatly enhances mood. The fighter’s giant shadow during one scene is especially redolent.
The ‘Real’ Big Fight
A terrific, part fictional biopic, The Royale was inspired by Jack Johnson, the first African American World Heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915). ‘The Galveston Giant’ triumphed, against all odds, in the era of Jim Crow. Because of racial tension, both guns and alcohol were prohibited at his bouts. The win itself resulted in outbreaks of bigoted violence that resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people.
Johnson left school early, ricocheting between jobs. As apprentice to a carriage painter who loved boxing, he caught the bug and began to spar on the side. Along his journey, while otherwise employed, the young man roomed with several fighters. He entered the profession a defensive boxer at twenty and at thirty became champion.
By all reports an entertaining personality, Johnson also played the vaudeville circuit with stories and demonstrations and was one of the first celebrity sports figures garnering endorsement contacts.
Much of the population was uncomfortable with a black man in his position. Fixing on Johnson’s preference for white women as an excuse, local government saw to it that he was arrested on trumped up charges relating to The Mann Act “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” He was convicted by an all white jury and fled the country for seven years only to be clapped in prison upon his return. Johnson nonetheless returned to boxing and was active until the age of sixty accruing 73 wins.
Performance Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Opening: McKinley Belcher III, John Lavelle, Clarke Peters, Khris Davis
If interested, check out: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, the 2004 Ken Burns documentary.
Lincoln Center Theater presents
The Royale by Marco Ramirez
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Through May 1, 2016
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater