Even if you have little interest in gospel music and never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, you won’t soon forget them after seeing George Brant’s “Marie and Rosetta” at Northlight Theatre.
That’s not because the play is so good, but but because these two women of color were remarkable musical pioneers. What’s more, Bethany Thomas as Rosetta, dubbed the “Godmother of rock ‘n’ roll,” and Alexis J. Roston as her protégée Knight bring them vividly to life under the beautifully nuanced direction of E. Faye Butler.
They’re also marvelous singers, and their contrasting voices soar, singly and together, in spirituals such as “This Train,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” and “Sit Down,” as well as secular, suggestive songs like “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” and “Four or Five Times.” They’re good enough that they seem to be playing their own instruments, though conductor Morgan E. Stevenson actually is on piano and Larry Brown is on guitar, with Rick Sims providing the sound design (that falters by feeding the resonator guitar through the sound system.) We even see the women collaborating to compose “Up Above My Head,” but that’s after they have formed a bond.
Getting to that point involves a good chunk of the play’s 105 minutes and Brant’s rather contrived set-up. The time is 1946 and Tharpe, who already is famous, has seen Knight singing backup on a bill with rival Mahalia Jackson and, recognizing “something special” in her contralto, has invited the girl to join her tour before Jackson can snap her up. This much is true.
What we witness is their first rehearsal together before their first performance later that night, but it also serves as a kind of audition so Tharpe can see if Knight is a good fit, and the shy young woman can decide if the opportunity is worth leaving her family.
The rehearsal is taking place in a funeral parlor where the duo also will sleep, because this is the segregated South, and people of color can’t stay in white establishments and have few other options. John Culbert’s rather crowded set design includes a cot and an upright piano amid a trio of caskets and other funereal accouterments, while Jared Gooding’s lighting design incongruously shifts for musical numbers, suggesting a concert stage … or, I’m not sure what. McKinley Johnson’s costumes seem to be for the concert to come, with Tharpe in a long, sparkly evening gown and satin cape and Knight in a shimmering 1950s cocktail dress.
As the rehearsal unfolds, the prim Marie, who sees herself as holy and sanctified, moves from being deferential to expressing her opinion more openly and arguing with her mentor, especially about musical matters. Her style is “high gospel,” while Rosetta’s, with her driving guitar playing, is earthy, even raucous, and she keeps trying to get Marie to loosen up and swivel her hips. At the same time, Rosetta has fallen out of the church’s graces for performing in night clubs like the Cotton Club, and she hopes Knight will help restore her to favor.
They also discuss a number of other topics, among them the discrimination suffered by Black people and the problem of men. Rosetta refers to men as “squirrels” and has had a few husbands, while Marie lets on that she’s not happy in her marriage. We can sense the attraction between the women, but Brant doesn’t handle it explicitly — at least not until the finale.
Then, towards the end, the playwright pulls the rug out from under us in a way that’s problematic. For one thing, it requires rushing through a lot of exposition, including the litany of rockers and others Tharpe influenced, among them Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. What happened with Rosetta and Marie’s tour isn’t dealt with adequately, and the reasons for their split aren’t clear or entirely believable, nor do we learn about their subsequent appearances together.
I left the theater feeling that the play failed to illuminate how much of a trailblazer Tharpe really was, or what her relationship with Knight really was like. I was moved by the performances, however, and by many of the songs, especially Thomas’ rendition of the blues number “I Looked Down the Line” after Rosetta’s reflections on the humiliations she experienced performing at the Cotton Club, where she sometimes had to put on blackface and only white customers were allowed. Roston’s climactic “Peace in the Valley” made me tear up, too.