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.
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