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
As Labor Day looms on the horizon it puts a spotlight on the new rules for wardrobe choices, and their correctness (or not) and together with memories of the just-ended Olympics reminds us how little clothing it now takes to be a winner. It seems the right time to take a fresh look at the quaint expression “Sunday Best.” It used to mean the “dress up clothes” you could wear to Church and be more or less assured that you would not stand out like a pesky weed in a garden of elegant predictability. Those whose worship was on a different, designated day of the week have traditionally been tolerant of the fact that the said “Best” was a no less demanding set of requirements for them and their fellow worshippers. A matter more of correctness than calendar, you might say.
Some of the genteel elements of the “Sunday Best” might have included a large hair bow, a collar and tie (remember when those weren’t just for weekdays, minus Friday, at your job in a corporate office that included both bricks and mortar?). Gloves, not the kind you use for warmth but ones made of cotton (preferably white) or kid (Look it up!) or crochet linen were musts. The dresses (unless you were Katherine Hepburn and had been given a pass on wearing skirts) were to be tailored, elegant (not too) and cover the knees. The Shoes were wing tips for him and closed and not too high of heel for her. Crocks were spelled with a K and used for storing pickles and children were definitely not to wear the plastic foot coverings that leave out the “k” as an acceptable “Sunday Best’ wardrobe selection. Hats, presumably were recommended (or not) with a nod to gender. Men’s hats were seemingly synonymous with a range from Fedora to Irish Walking Hat (especially if you were the late, great Patrick J. Moynihan) to Derbys and other styles made of felt. The “Sunday Bests” in this category did not include baseball caps or otherwise designated promotional items that identified you with cause or sporting loyalty.
In houses of worship from which the Aretha Franklins and Mahalia Jacksons of the world emerged into the vocal halls of fame, hats, I believe, remain an absolute requirement. It was not by accident that the musical based on this fashion statement was called “Crowns.” Purses were not to be confused with backpacks or similarly luggage grade carriers suited to accommodating the majority of one’s earthly possessions.
If you are wondering why a mention of Labor Day set off this train of thought, it’s because the rules of costuming have calendar standards that are probably mostly “honored in the breach” of late. Not so long ago, the white shoes that were not to be brought out before Memorial Day were also scrupulously to be retired after Labor Day. The same general rule applied to white trousers as worn by both males and females and suits (unless you happened to be the writer of Bonfire of the Vanities and named Tom Wolfe.) Then there came the vogue for “winter white” and in its fashion wake, all bets were off for the whole universe of white garments.
While waiting to speak with the buyer for a nicely managed super market in my urban village, I observed a note on the bulletin board recommending certain wardrobe choices for the men and women employed there. It included the recommendation to avoid wearing “openwork” denim trousers, see-through tops and other clothing and footwear items. That gave me yet another reason to add to my own puzzlement as to how price tags seem to rise in proportion to the removal of fabric. When, I can’t help but wonder, did deliberate destruction become a winning design inspiration coveted by fashion directors from K-Mart to Bergdorf. I recall when “casual Fridays” emerged as a viable fashion option. At first it might have been that losing a tie was somehow a bold choice. But that predated virtual commuting that made it a matter of no concern as to Friday garb.
Now that exercise regimens have taken on the status of semi-sacred obligations no one should be surprised that what were once referred to as “gym clothes” go with confidence to any and every destination. I need to Google a story reported recently on one of the innumerable electronic modes of communication and be reminded of what it said about the impact of casual clothing on the level of one’s happiness.
Maybe “Sunday Best” refers to mood and not garb. So as Labor Day nears, just smile, and stay tuned.
All photos: Bigstock by Shutterstock