News Ticker

Marie and Rosetta

Dynamic duo Rebecca Naomi Lewis and Kecia Lewis bring back gospel legends Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones in a scene from “Marie and Rosetta” (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones in a scene from “Marie and Rosetta” (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

It is criminal that African American singing legends Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight are not better known today, but George Brant’s new play with music, Marie and Rosetta at the Atlantic Theater Company, attempts to right that wrong. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Sister Rosetta was a famous gospel and Rhythm & Blues singer and recording artist who is now considered the “Godmother of Rock and Roll.” She has been credited with influencing such singers as Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Etta James, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. Marie Knight who joined her as a double act for ten years was also influential in making gospel music mainstream. Singing actresses Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis are incredibly inspiring as the two gospel legends who share with us some of their most famous songs.

Set in a Mississippi funeral home in 1946, the only place in town that Sister Rosetta (played by Lewis) can find a bed in the segregated south, the play recounts the night when the two rehearsed for their first concert together. Sister Rosetta has just heard the younger Marie (Jones) as backup to her rival Mahalia Jackson (who she privately calls “Saint Mahalia”) and afraid that she will lose the singing prodigy to Jackson, has hired her on the spot.

However, the women have to work out their differences in singing styles and temperaments. Sister Rosetta has sung in nightclubs, thereby damaging her reputation with a part of the African American community. She sees Marie as more high church which is both an attribute and a detriment. She needs to teach Marie to swing her music, but at the same time she can reopen “the gospel gates” that got locked behind her when she began singing in places like The Cotton Club which only permitted white patrons and required singers to perform in blackface.

As the women talk, we learn about their careers and their private lives. Both have had difficulties with their husbands who Sister Rosetta calls “squirrels.” Marie still has to decide if she will follow Sister Rosetta’s more worldly lead or her mother’s advice about avoiding the devil’s music and continue with the more religious Mahalia Jackson. However, as Sister Rosetta believes, “I’m gonna find more sinners in a nightclub than she ever gonna find in a church.” Marie who has not been on tour before is unaware of the prejudice she will face in the Deep South and is horrified to discover what she is in for if she throws in her lot with Sister Rosetta. While Brant’s dialogue seems to remain fixed on only a few topics, it is mainly used to segue between the magnificent musical numbers. While the play never completely fleshes out the two women, the two fine actresses make us believe we have met the originals.

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis in a scene from “Marie and Rosetta” (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis in a scene from “Marie and Rosetta” (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

The two women size each other up, first by Sister Rosetta singing such gospel numbers as “This Train,” “Rock Me” and “Sit Down,” while Marie demonstrates her style with “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” Then they move into a series of dynamic duets, each one more robust and rousing then the last. Eventually they sing a few of the pop songs that Sister Rosetta has made famous: “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” and “Four or Five Times.” A sleight of hand is their writing “Up Above My Head” together while we watch and listen to the song unfold as if for the first time. Lewis brings her powerful, full-bodied voice to her songs, while Jones has a smaller, mellower sound (the real life Knight was a contralto). However, when they join together in song, the results are glorious, and each duet will make you hungry for the next one.

Although Jones’ Marie is mainly seated behind the piano, and Lewis often on guitar, the music to their 13 songs is actually played by Felicia Collins and Deah Harriott hidden behind the scrim. However, so fine are Jones and Lewis at miming the music that it is not obvious until virtuosos Collins and Harriott are revealed at the end that we discover that they were, in fact, not playing. Director Neil Pepe’s unobtrusive direction allows their lives and the music to naturally evolve in the course of the evening.

Riccardo Hernández’s setting at first startling, recedes into the background, becoming an acceptable venue for the rehearsal. The lighting by Christopher Akerlind shifts subtly for the different musical numbers, while Dede M. Ayite has the actresses rehearsing in the white gowns in which they plan to perform their show. Music director Jason Michael Webb is responsible for the excellent arrangements and orchestrations that grace the show.

You may not have heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight before, but after Marie and Rosetta you will be convinced of their importance in the development of popular music in the 20th century. Credit goes to Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis for making this a mesmerizing evening of gospel, spirituals and popular song.

Marie and Rosetta (extended through October 16, 2016)

Atlantic Theater Company

Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (667 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.