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Marie and Rosetta

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Marie and Rosetta

L-R: Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis. Photo by Ahron R. Foster

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Times are deplorable when you have to live in a funeral parlor and sleep in the caskets. That's how it was for traveling black gospel singers in 1946 Mississippi, even those as acclaimed as Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis) and as talented as her protégée Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones).

The Atlantic Theater Company's Marie and Rosetta is George Brant's new bio-musical at the Linda Gross Theater. A world-premiere, it is light on biographical details and sketchy on dates but lights a musical inferno when Lewis and Jones let loose their thunderous hallelujahs with a whole lot of vocals, piano and guitar.  Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight were two women who helped propel rhythm and blues into the rock 'n' roll fame of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.

The show takes place over one night after Tharpe enlisted ingenue Knight to join her upcoming gospel show.  Tharpe recognized talent when she saw it and she heard something special in the younger woman's pleasing contralto and soft vibrato singing hymns like "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)." Knight had more of a "high church sound" than Tharpe's guitar-thumping gospel-soul-jazz style that bordered on secular.  Tharpe had actually moved into nightclub work for a while but now it was time to return to the church and gospel and Tharpe believed that she and Knight together could praise the Lord like no one else, especially her competition, Mahalia Jackson.

At first, Tharpe thought Marie Knight was a naive teenager but later found she was 23, married and had two children.  Despite warnings from Knight's mother to sing hymns, the repressed girl was secretly drawn to the earthy vitality of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's recordings and finally left home to join her.

While the 90-minute play, offering a twist at the end, delivers little character depth.  Persuasive performances by Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis displayed the respect, love and musical chemistry between Knight and Tharpe.  Audacious Tharpe encouraged Knight to unstiffen her hips and let God's songs swing like "This Train" and even the raunchy "Rock Me."  Director Neil Pepe let the two actors escape the wrappings of their characters as they turned to music, ripping it up and swapping solos in boogie-woogie with “Strange Things Happen Every Day.”  They ignited the bluesy sensuality of "Four or Five Times," four hands on piano and easily traded off vocal lines, notably in "Didn't It Rain" and "Up Above My Head," thundering through the theater. 

They loved singing together and the songs are heavenly.  Lewis portrays Sister Rosetta's more quiet moments as she sinks into herself with a quiet guitar in “I Looked Down the Line.”  At the end, Jones' celestial vocals shine delivering Marie's poignant "Peace in the Valley."

While Jones and Lewis are dynamic vocalists and deliver tight harmonies, they are also convincing portraying pianists and guitarists.  The instruments were actually played behind a scrim by the fiercely talented Felicia Collins and Deah Harriott.  Kudos here to music director Jason Michael Webb.

Riccardo Hernández designed the funeral parlor set where the women not only slept but rehearsed, dressed and put on their make-up among the caskets that were usually draped with dresses. Dede M. Ayite dressed both women in white, Tharpe wearing a gown and Knight a dress.  Besides the coffins, there is a piano and a chair.

This single set is a constant reminder of the discrimination against black performer.  It lingers bleakly throughout the play and ironically, gospel superstar Rosetta Tharpe, "The Godmother of Rock 'n Roll," was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia until a concert provided a headstone 35 years after her 1973 death.  In 2008, the Governor of Pennsylvania declared that January 11 would be known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.


Marie and Rosetta

A Play With Music: Atlantic Theater Company Production
Linda Gross Theater
59 East 59th Street
Previewed: August 24, 2016. Opening: Sept. 14, 2016 Closing: Oct. 16, 2016
Directed by Neil Pepe
Written by: George Brant
Running time: 90 minutes
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

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