NEW YORK—The rafters ring with song and some good old-fashioned common sense in George Brant’s “Marie & Rosetta.” The Atlantic Theater Company’s production of the play with music focuses on a pivotal moment in the lives of two African-American gospel singers: Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis) and Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones).
The story takes place in a Mississippi funeral home—one replete with coffins and a piano—in 1946. It is the only place in the area that would allow people of color to spend the night.
However, sleep is the last thing on either woman’s mind at the moment; they must rehearse for their debut performance together that evening.
Rosetta is a practiced hand at entertaining as she has performed for many years and recorded numerous records. But Marie is battling a terrible case of nerves while trying desperately to be calm enough to perform with someone she has idolized most of her life.
Not long before, Marie was part of Rosetta’s opening act, until the older woman saw in Marie a potential for stardom and signed her to an exclusive contract.
Rosetta, who has watched her own star slip of late, has found a large portion of the gospel world closed to her since she began appearing in nightclubs and cabarets, as well as “swinging” many traditional religious songs. She sees in Marie someone who can help her get back on top.
To her credit, Rosetta doesn’t try to hide her plans for Marie or the act. She tells the younger woman straight out, “You’re not my backup, you’re my ‘and.'” A self-described diva, Rosetta also possesses a realistic viewpoint about their respective strengths and weaknesses. She acknowledges that Marie is the far better piano player. What Marie lacks is the confidence in herself to really let go with her music and her singing. This is something Rosetta does her best to bring out.
As the rehearsal progresses, the two find they have a lot in common: bad choices when it comes to men, mothers who strongly influenced their lives, and pleasure when using their music to help illustrate their love for God.
The major difference between them is that while Marie initially shows a quiet and restrained reverence in her attitude and performance, Rosetta believes that showing the love for God should be more of a joyful celebration. The two women come from these different points of view as they try to make their musical styles mesh to create an act that paying audiences will want to see.
Present throughout their conversations is the ever-present specter of racism. In addition to its being the reason the two are using a funeral home as a rehearsal area, it’s also why Rosetta always has a white man drive her tour bus—so he can go into restaurants and order food for the rest of them.
Another point made in this regard is that if Marie hadn’t decided to go on the road as a singer, the best she could have hoped for would be working as a domestic servant and maybe singing at church on Sundays.
Lewis and Jones work well together, while ably bringing forth the mentor/protégée relationship. With a no-nonsense attitude and a realistic sense about life, Lewis is completely believable as a woman who has been around the block a few times.
Jones nicely contrasts this sense of experience by imbuing Marie with a sense of wonder and the excitement of one who is about to embark on a great adventure. Each also has the maturity and understanding to compromise a bit in order to accommodate the other’s point of view.
The strongest part of the show occurs thanks to the performers’ ability to make impromptu musical moments come across as if they were actually happening “off the cuff.” Seeing Marie seemingly make up lyrics to a particular song feels completely spur-of-the-moment, as does a sequence that starts out as a piano solo but ends up becoming a duet.
Credit must also be given here to director Neil Pepe, who guides the proceedings with a sure hand.
Both actresses have excellent singing voices and make full use of them. The two put forth numerous musical numbers, some of which their characters made famous in real life. The audience alternatively claps in time to the faster numbers and sits in rapt silence to the more somber ones, always giving them enthusiastic applause when finished.
Good work by musicians Felicia Collins (guitar) and Deah Harriott (piano) in providing musical accompaniment.
Also deserving of mention is the work of SCK Sound Design. It is so refreshing being able to hear songs in a production overly miked to the hilt, where one can clearly hear both the music and lyrics, with the proper emphasis on each.
The only shortcoming in the work comes with the story itself. Specifically, a plot twist toward the end contains far too much exposition.
In addition, while the story provides a nice introduction to who these people were, it never really goes below the surface in examining the life of either.
These quibbles aside, “Marie and Rosetta” offers both a tuneful, entertaining time at the theater and a look at two interesting figures in 20th-century music.
‘Marie and Rosetta’
Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 20th St.
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or AtlanticTheater.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Oct. 16
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and reviewer for stagebuzz.com