Special to the AmNews
“Marie and Rosetta” is a production that needs to be seen! Set in Mississippi in 1946, it tells the story of legendary gospel singer Rosetta Tharpe and her protégé Marie Knight. Tharpe, a popular singer who sold more than a million records, had to deal with prejudice and racism. The play, written by George Brant, truly gives the audience a taste of the struggles that gospel singers endured as they tried to share their gifts with their loyal Black audiences. These artists could perform with big name musicians such as Duke Ellington, playing amazing venues in New York, but down South was a different story.
The reality down South, in places such as Mississippi, is that Black singers had to travel on a bus with a white driver. The driver was their means of getting food on the road because businesses wouldn’t sell food to Blacks, and the driver would deal with the police when they pulled them over—as of course they would do, seeing a bus full of Black performers.
What’s stunning about this production as it begins is the opening scene. The set by Riccardo Hernandez immediately captures your attention, as it is filled with nine caskets, some open, some closed. The performers are staying at a local funeral parlor and will sleep there in the coffins, as opposed to sleeping on a cold bus. Tharpe is appreciative to the owner for allowing them to spend the night there and knows which type of casket she’s comfortable in.
Tharpe was around at the time that Mahalia Jackson was thriving, but her style was different. Although Tharpe sang gospel music, she also had a swing to her songs. She sang, at times, risky songs that were not deemed acceptable to the gospel-loving community.
This production is full of some amazing gospel numbers that will definitely take you to church. There are also some great jazz numbers. Tharpe is marvelously played by Kecia Lewis. Her voice is tremendous and totally captivates the audience. She has an incredibly powerful vocal instrument. Knight is played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, and she comes across as an innocent, principled woman, who has her own skeletons in her closet.
Although the production is set on the first night of a tour that Tharpe and Knight did together, the audience is also taken through all the events of Tharpe’s life—the ups and the downs, her failed relationships, her poor health and, eventually, her sad demise.
Watching a production such as this play, one is reminded of how difficult it was for gifted Black performers back in the day.
“Marie and Rosetta” has moving direction by Neil Pepe and a fantastic creative team that includes Dede M. Ayite for costumes, Christopher Akerlind on lights, SCK Sound Design on sound and Jason Michael Webb on arrangements, orchestrations and music direction. There is also live piano and guitar playing that truly brings the show to life. “Marie and Rosetta” is playing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, located at 336 W. 20th Street in Manhattan. For more information, visit atlantictheater.org.