Yes, we all know about the horrible explosion in Chelsea the other day, but let me remind you that there’s a far more benign blast of energy bursting only a few blocks away through the Atlantic Theatre’s Linda Gross Theatre on W. 20th Street. The sensational artists detonating it are Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis incarnating the sounds and souls of two great gospel singers, Marie Knight (1925-2009) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73), in George Brant’s hallelujah of a bio-musical, Marie and Rosetta.
Brant, taking a bunch of dramatic liberties, tells the story of how Tharpe, a legend in the African-American gospel music community, is returning in 1946 to her gospel roots after a commercially successful excursion into more secular sounding—and thus notorious—music. While touring, she comes across Marie, a pretty girl, ten years younger and in awe of her; as Tharpe prepares for a show, she invites Marie to become her singing partner.
Their encounter takes place in a Mississippi funeral parlor where Rosetta will be rehearsing; this is the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, when black performers were prevented from using ordinary venues for their art; toward the end, it turns out that Brant has another interesting reason for choosing this unusual locale. Ten caskets, with an upright piano, form the background of Riccardo Hernández’s set (nicely lit by Christopher Akerlind), and Marie is suitably shocked when Rosetta says she’ll have to sleep in one that night for want of a more conventional resting place.
Tharpe is a full-figured, imperious, queenly woman, with a ton of sass, wearing a full-length, pale aqua, beaded dress (thanks to costumer Dede M. Ayite), and speaking and singing in a voice so commanding it could put the hearing aid industry out of business. She turns out, however, to be vastly warm, maternal, and eternally forgiving, her prickliness a mask for her insecurities (she’s a tad jealous of the great singer, Mahalia Jackson).
Marie, on the other hand, is modest, withdrawn, and pious, uncomfortable playing Rosetta’s raucous style of music, which gives such worldly sensuality to familiar church music that she was later recognized as a major precursor of rock ‘n roll. Drawing the women together is not only their music, but also the stories they share, like those about their mothers or their troubles with the “squirrelly” men in their lives.
Gradually, as the pair sing a series of (mostly) rafter-shaking gospel tunes, Marie, not quite what she first seems to be, warms to the task and learns to appreciate and perform the kind of up-tempo, rocking, hip-swaying gospel music Rosetta exemplifies but that makes “high church” folk like her uncomfortable. Quieter spirituals include Marie’s “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” and “Peace in the Valley,” but the keyboard gets plenty of loud pounding by both, solo and in tandem.
Rosetta also plays vigorously on both an acoustic and, most distinctively, an electric guitar, something that only made her more controversial. You’ll want to buckle your seat belts for when the pair join in on “Didn’t it Rain” and “Up above My Head.” (Much credit is due to the hidden musicians, Felicia Collins and Deah Harriott.)
As the play winds down, the situation takes a turn that gives us another perspective on the grim surroundings. Like the information rolling by at the end of a film based on actual events, we soon get a lot of post-1946 exposition, tying the piece together neatly but also underlining playwriting contrivances.
Nonetheless, Marie and Rosetta, vibrantly staged by Neil Pepe, isn’t the kind of play you criticize the way you do something by Edward Albee. It’s a well-crafted exercise that provides an excellent context in which to learn about and appreciate two exceptional performers who—especially Tharpe—made an indelible impact on popular music. Tharpe (buried in an unmarked grave first given a headstone in 2009) has been celebrated in recent years in print, a documentary, and even a U.S. postage stamp, but her partnership with Knight is less well known. Until now, that is.
Jones and Lewis couldn’t be bettered as the holy vessels bringing Marie and Rosetta back to life; they perfectly capture these women’s sharply different personalities, offering totally believable yet larger-than-life representations. Lewis especially, because of Tharpe’s grandiose personality, etches a portrait of unforgettable authority that will yank your tears out of their ducts. When they sing, either as solos or a duet, you’ll have to hold on to your armrests to keep from standing up and shouting “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!”
Marie and Rosetta
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
326 W. 20th St., NYC
Through October 16
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).