Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a controversial legend for her time (1930’s & 40’s), having inspired must greats like Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix. Many call her the “Mother of Rock N’ Roll” because she added fiery guitar playing, sultry jazz/ R&B vibes, and ferocious swing to gospel music, which what is rock if not soul and strings. Unfortunately, Tharpe received a lot of backlash from gospel conservatists whom thought religious spirituals did not need a “demonic” flare. Yet, Marie and Rosetta does well in presenting Tharpe as a larger than life figure whom believed a “love” for God must be continuously new, creative, and filled with heart.
Kecia Lewis plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe with a fire that makes you understand why this woman was such a dynamic, divisive figure for her time….. she was ahead of it. Tharpe should have been born in an even more distant future than now. She was a smart, strong, and resilient woman that could see a person’s light before they did. Enter Marie Knight ( played sweetly by Rebecca Naomi Jones), whom is a meeker persona with a bright talent. The play is set in a gospel practice at a funeral parlor. Tharpe, whose real-life rival was fellow gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, has just stolen Knight from the songstress. Knight, whom was a back-up singer for Jackson, sees in Tharpe both a mentor and a fellow dreamer. Surrounded by empty coffins and a church-like set made by Riccardo Hernandez, the two women grow in friendship and frustration over their mutual love for music and innovation.
Although Marie and Rosetta may not shine the most in dialogue or “plot twists”, the overall story is what will enrapture audience. Rosetta Tharpe is a fascinating character, and the play does well to make you want to run out and google her life. You wonder how this boisterous personality and genius was able to fill up a baseball stadium, during the 1940’s, and then end up buried in an unmarked grave. How could such a big life end so small? Though Jones does well to make Marie Knight a layered character with her mutual desire to push music and social boundaries, everyone will gravitate to the laughs and love that Lewis develops as Rosetta Tharpe. It is not because Jones is a lesser actress, its just because Tharpe is a magnetic character.
Tharpe was the queen of “race records”, and with Knight formed some wonderful duets. It is during the music sequences of this play that everyone, both characters and actresses, get to shine. Songs like “Didn’t It Rain” and “I Looked Down the Line” will make you want to stand up and praise like you are in front of a legitimate, spiritual revival. The music comes off as beautiful and fresh because you probably have not heard it before, which is why you will be “youtubing” Tharpe’s music on your way home. Lewis and Jones have powerful, raw voices that do justice to the emotive story-telling the real-life Tharpe and Knight would induce with their singing.
All in all, Marie and Rosetta will find its audience in music lovers fascinated by gospel and rock’s history. Directed by Neil Pepe, the play is successful in bringing a new character into your life. Moreover, one filled with moral lessons on the sadness of both American history and the perseverance of a good soul. Click here for more information on Marie and Rosetta. It is currently on till October 2 at The Atlantic Theater.
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
Administrative Offices, 76 Ninth Avenue, Ste. 537