As theater, Marie and Rosetta makes a great concert.
George Brant’s play with music depicts the beginning of the musical collaboration between the legendary gospel/R&B singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis) and her young protege Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones), with whom she would forge a lifelong friendship. Set in 1946 Mississippi, it takes place over one long night during which the two women discover the personal and musical chemistry that they would exploit successfully for years to come.
The biographical work, whose world premiere is at the off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, takes place in a funeral parlor filled with empty coffins — the setting is not coincidental, as we learn by the end of the evening. Rosetta has enlisted Marie, who had been performing with Rosetta’s arch-rival Mahalia Jackson, and they are now rehearsing for an upcoming show.
Staged in perfunctory fashion by Neil Pepe, the schematic play dutifully checks off character-defining plot points, such as Rosetta’s rivalry with Jackson; Marie’s revelation that she’s not a teenager but rather a married 23-year-old with two children; and experiments with secular music in the form of bluesy, innuendo-laden songs like “Four or Five Times.”
“Now we both going to hell!” proclaims Rosetta after they finish singing the raucous number.
The scenario ends up being little more than an excuse for Lewis and Jones to perform, singly and together, a series of songs made famous by Tharpe. These include “This Train,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “Up Above My Head” and “I Looked Down the Line” among others. Pretending to play guitar and piano respectively (the actual musicianship is provided by the backstage duo of Felicia Collins and Deah Harriott), the two actresses deliver a series of thrilling vocals that threaten to tear the roof off the theater.
But for all the excitement both the music and the terrific performances provide, the evening gets bogged down in dialogue filled with expository details that fails to impart any deep insight into the real-life figures. The problem is particularly noticeable toward the end, when a surprise twist reveals that the work is not quite the naturalistic exercise it initially seemed, and the duo’s later lives are described in perfunctory detail.
Still, the piece is valuable if only for shining a much-needed spotlight on Tharpe, who — despite her important influence on such figures as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, among many others — is not nearly as well-known today as she should be. If the producers were smart, they would sell not only a cast album but also Tharpe’s classic recordings in the lobby.
Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: Kecia Lewis, Rebecca Naomi Jones
Playwright: George Brant
Director: Neil Pepe
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: SCK Sound Design
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company