By Tulis McCall
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. Marie and Rosetta is lifting the roof off the Atlantic Theatre on West 20th Street. This is one of those rare occasions when a true story doesn’t ruin a perfectly good play. Or Musical. Or play. You see there is music – oiy is there music! But it is gospel and blues. Songs that we mostly know and a few that we don’t, but they get your blood bursting anyway.
1946 Mississippi and we are in the showroom of a funeral parlor. This is the “hotel” for Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis)and her newly minted protégée Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones). Sister Rosetta heard Marie singing the night before as part of an opening quartet for Mahalia Jackson and scooped her up before Jackson could get her hands on Marie. There was some serious negotiating before Marie’s mother would let her go with Rosetta. But Rosetta convinced her that Marie would not get lost in a choir and would be able to let her light shine.
On this night they are warming up for the evening’s performance in a warehouse that will make their gowns smell like tobacco for a week.
Although the younger of the two, it is Marie who comes from a straight-laced upbringing. Rosetta calls her “high church.” The idea of fun is an odd concept to her. Songs should be delivered with reverence and accuracy. Rosetta on the other hand believes in putting swing into her delivery along with the spirit and tells Marie that she will reach more souls in a nightclub than a church.
Over the course of 90 or so minutes we get not only the history of these women but a grip on the time in which they lived. Normally this is where a play “based on a true story” falls apart. But this is where George Brant shows his story telling skills. The facts – Sister Tharpe was the inspiration for later luminaries like Johnny Cash, Elvis and Jimmy Hendrix – don’t get in the way of the story (until the final, final, final moments of the play).
Marie needs some preparation and indoctrination both musically and mentally before she and Sister Rosetta perform in a few hours. Rosetta believes that God has a sense of humor and wants us all to look for the joke in every scrap of joy we can find. She lets Marie know up front that if Marie is not willing or is incapable of dancing down THAT road she can fetch herself back to her mother’s table. She also wants her to get rid of that “vibrator” (vibrato) in her voice as it is a useless affectation.
Marie is game, it turns out, because she has people depending on her. Two children and her mother. The husband of hers (they refer to husbands as squirrels) is as useless as the day is long. Rosetta has been down that road herself, and that knowledge binds them at the hip as much as any musical number.
We learn that the bus driver for Rosetta and her band is white, because how else can they get food on the road? He is also there to talk to the police when they get pulled over – and they will. But mostly we learn about their private lives. Rosetta has a history – a long one. Marie, too, has a history – just a little shorter.
The two women trade stories and songs throughout this tale. “This Train,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” and “Sit Down,” “Four or Five Times” and one reminiscent of Alberta Hunter – “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.” And create a song on the spot – “Up Above My Head” that is ethereal.
The only way to improve this production would be to stage it in a dance hall. I was nearly jumping out of my skin wanting to get up and boogie. This show is good for everything that ails you – heart, mind and soul. Marie and Rosetta lift you up to Heaven, and then set you gently back down on earth.
And a very special shout out to the two women actually PLAY the piano and guitar (the miming needs some improvement) – Felicia Collins and Deah Hariott.
Marie and Rosetta – Written by George Brant; Directed by Neil Pepe
WITH Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kecia Lewis.
Set, Ricardo Hernandez; costumes, Dede M. Ayite; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, SCK Sound Design; arrangements & orchestrations, Jason Michael Webb; music director, Jason Michael Webb; production stage manager, Michael Domue. www.atlantictheater.org