Despite the credit given to Sister Rosetta Tharpe by many musicologists as the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” there are still many people who don’t know her name, much less her story.
Mosaic Theater Company’s first offering for its fourth season “Marie and Rosetta” is a beautifully illustrated history lesson on Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her protégé Marie Knight’s musical relationship, tied together by timeless gospel music, the genre that gave birth to both their careers.
Both women came out of the Black church and went on to be trailblazers for R&B and the blues. “Marie and Rosetta” is set on the first rehearsal for the two women, who would travel the country, including the segregated South where they had to sleep in whatever accommodations that they could find; this time a funeral parlor replete with caskets.
The spirited Rosetta, played by Helen Hayes Award winner Roz White (“Bessie’s Blues), selected Marie, played by D.C. native Ayana Reed, from Mahalia Jackson’s choir and recruits her to travel with her as vocalist and pianist. While both women were rooted in the church, and their delivery and renditions of iconic gospel hymns such as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” and “This Train” attest to time and investment in church music, Rosetta Tharpe had transitioned into the Blues on songs like “Tall Skinny Papa.”
Both White and Reed have resonant, soul-stirring voices, but to address the fact that neither actress was a musician, the play employs live musicians on stage; Ronette F. Harrison on piano and Barbra Roy Gaskins on guitar. While they sat at the piano with Harrison actually playing, their voices attracted attention away from the instrument and focused attention on the singers.
The visual of White air-strumming the guitar while Gaskins was seated on the side playing guitar was less effective, but made the point that Tharpe was one of the first women to play guitar on stage, eventually electrifying her music, and gaining her nomination into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently and inclusion in the New York Historical Society’s permanent exhibit “Women’s Voices.”
Tharpe is also credited with influencing later musicians such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix. In 1947, Sister Rosetta was the first person to put a 14-year-old boy named Little Richard Penniman on a stage, who later became known only as Little Richard. It was that experience with Tharpe that led him to become a performer.
“Marie and Rosetta” written by George Brant, was first presented at the Off-Broadway Atlantic Theater in 2016 and has also been produced for the Cleveland Play House and the Cincinnati Playhouse.
The Mosaic Theater production is directed by Sandra Holloway, working with her frequent collaborator e’Marcus Harper-Short as musical director.
“I grew up in the same religious community as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Church of God in Christ, which deeply values music as a way to be moved by the Holy Spirit,” Harper-Short said. “So I feel a very close connection to her music and her story.
“The religious tradition is in many ways the foundation on which gospel music was built, and it is why Rosetta’s playing was just so phenomenal,” he continued. “She would just go and go, and work up a sweat and reach this nirvana of performance, and it allowed her to be the first artist from the Church of God in Christ to cross over to blues and other mainstream music.”
The plot behind the play doesn’t have much action, as it is set on just portion of one day. But the soulful songs and poignant duets, such as White and Reed’s harmonization on “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer,” provide enough gravitas to make up for any shortcomings. The dialogue employs many a humorous moment, but the music moves the one-hour and 40-minute production along (with no intermission) without faltering at any point.
And should “Marie and Rosetta” need any endorsement from the clergy, Rev. Thomas Bowen, director of the Office of Religious Affairs in the Executive Office of the Mayor and assistant minister at Shiloh Baptist Church, noted “‘Marie and Rosetta’ was the best play I have seen in a long time, maybe ever.”
“Marie and Rosetta” plays at the Atlas Performing Arts Center through Sept. 30. Several of the performances will feature post-performance discussions, including Sept. 9 with author of “Shout, Sister Shout,” Gayle Wald. The biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe is also for sale at the Atlas.
Go to www.mosaictheater.org/marie-and-rosetta for performance schedules and discussion dates.