Whenever the two stars of “Marie and Rosetta” sing, it’s all that matters: Kecia Lewis swinging and soulful as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer and guitarist who filled stadiums and influenced Ray Charles and rockers from Elvis to Jimi Hendrix, but when she died at age 58 was buried in an unmarked grave; Rebecca Naomi Jones pretty and piercing as Marie Knight, gospel and r&b singer and pianist, who toured with Tharpe at the height of her popularity in the 1940’s.
Although the two actresses are only pretending to accompany each other on guitar and piano, the backstage musicians who are really playing for them couldn’t be better – Felicia Collins gets in some awesome licks on electric guitar, Deah Harriott is a versatile enough pianist not just to present the eclectic style of the long-ago duo- gospel, blues, swing, r&b, ballads, jazz, rock – but to allow us to hear the difference between Marie’s and Rosetta’s piano playing. But it is Lewis and Jones who bring it all home in song after song, a mixture of the sacred and the profane: “Rock Me In the Cradle of Your Love,” and “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa,” and the hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” which crossed over from gospel and is said to have helped birth rock ‘n roll.
“Marie and Rosetta” however is not a concert, nor even a musical; it’s billed as “a play with music.” Its premise recalls “Million Dollar Quartet” – a rehearsal. In this case, Marie and Rosetta, about to embark on their first tour, are rehearsing not in a famous recording studio, but in a funeral parlor.
“We not in New York anymore honey…We not in Chicago.” They are in Mississippi in 1946, and their first concert will in a huge tobacco warehouse on the outskirts of town. “Can’t stay in no hotel down here.” So Rosetta has arranged for them to sleep over in the comfortable silk-lined beds for the dead that clutter the local black-owned establishment that is the play’s sole setting.
Whether based on fact or not, the setting is a vivid choice by the play’s author, George Brant, an accomplished playwright whose best-known work, “Grounded,” about a female drone pilot, is being made into a film starring Anne Hathaway. Brant is a pro, and, if the conversation between the two women never approaches the excitement of their singing, the playwright is adept at establishing the distinctiveness of their personalities – Marie straitlaced and naïve, Rosetta, ten years older, worldly and more joyful. We learn that Marie was singing with Mahalia Jackson, when Rosetta snatched her away for her own tour, much to the consternation of Marie’s mother. But Rosetta tells Marie, she’s better off with her:
“[W]hat Mahalia and all them don’t understand…God ain’t up there frownin’ down on all’a us…No God up there chucklin’ away at all’a us. All us saints and sinners. Can’t wait to see what his silly children gonna come up with next.”
She adds: “Plus (I) got to play with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Hot Lips Page. You may go looking but you ain’t gonna find them playin’ for the Sunday service.”
Kecia Lewis, who was most recently the last-minute (stellar) replacement in the Classic Stage Company’s Mother Courage, is completely convincing as the woman who’s seen it all; Rebecca Naomi Jones (American Idiot, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) is perhaps a tad less persuasive as the wonder-struck naif.
But all would be well with the world of “Marie And Rosetta” had Brant not apparently decided that the dramatic focus on this one rehearsal kept us from learning enough about Sister Rosetta Tharp and Marie Knight’s intriguing lives and careers. Late in the play, there is an eye-rolling twist that seems to be Brant’s effort at a fix for the problem of the structure he himself chose for his play. I won’t spoil what happens. As shopworn as it is, it doesn’t spoil the service that George Brant has rendered by retrieving these figures for the stage, nor the rousing musical performances that are the heart of “Marie and Rosetta.”
Marie and Rosetta
By George Brant
Directed by Neil Pepe
Scenic design by Riccardo Hernández, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, music direction by Jason Michael Webb
Cast: Kecia Lewis, Rebecca Naomi Jones
Musicians: Felicia Collins, Deah Harriott
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Marie and Rosetta” is scheduled to run through October 2, 2016
Update: “Marie and Rosetta” has been extended through October 16.
Watch this hour-long PBS documentary: