WASHINTON, D.C.—Long before Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley became famous, an African-American gospel singer from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, was playing her guitar so skillfully that she would influence generations of musicians to come.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the daughter of sharecroppers and a celebrated gospel and Rhythm and Blues (R&B) singer who also played guitar, would become so influential in the birth of rock and roll that she would become known as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll. On April 14, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, joining the likes of The Beatles, Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Lead Belly.
The story of Tharpe’s rise to fame and her partnership with protégé Marie Knight is on stage at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., and is a must see show for music fans. Written by George Brant and directed by Sandra L. Holloway, the play is an intimate look at Tharpe, born in 1915 into a deeply religious family, who by age 6 was accompanying herself on piano and guitar. When her mother, an evangelist, moved her to Chicago, to a new life, the musical virtuoso would later cross over from the world of gospel music, performing the blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll on a Gibson SG electric guitar in nightclubs and major halls.
At 90 minutes long, with no intermission, “Marie and Rosetta” centers on the time that Tharpe mentored Marie Knight, a young piano player and singer who became her collaborator. Over three years, the two would tour the world, becoming the greatest duo in musical history.
In this Mosaic Theater Company production, Roz White plays Rosetta and Ayana Reed plays Marie, and the two are perfect in the roles. Although they do not actually play the piano or guitar (renowned gospel pianist Ronnette F. Harrison and veteran guitarist Barbara Gaskins do – and splendidly), White and Reed bring a joyous and bubbling energy to the stage. From the beginning, when we are introduced to their first rehearsal in 1946 in a Mississippi funeral home, we know that something magical will unfold.
Surrounded by coffins and dresses (black performers are not welcome in public accommodations so the funeral home serves as a sleeping and rehearsal space), we learn that the two met after Rosetta hears Marie singing during an opening act for renown gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Rosetta, who has been ostracized by many gospel lovers for turning to secular music, sees the prim and ‘high-church’ Marie as a co-headliner for a tour that will help her win back gospel fans.
As they prepare for their collaboration, Marie quickly gets a serious reality check. Pious and straight-laced, she is not prepared for the hip-swinging and soulful getting down that the older Rosetta expects. To Marie, Rosetta’s bouncy chromatic riffs and picking make the gospel based lyrics sound dirty. To Rosetta, however, one can make a joyful noise and have fun praising God.
The two almost abandon the idea for a collaboration, but after bonding over stories of overbearing and unsupportive husbands, Marie comes around, and the audience is treated to a treasure of songs that they perform on tour. Included are the 1945 crossover hit, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” considered to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, as well as “This Train” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”
Other songs include the suggestive “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” and “Four or Five Times.” Along the way, we learn of tragedies that the women would experience in their lives, bringing their collaboration to an end.
Brant, an excellent story teller, nicely wraps up the story with a surprising and moving ending, and Reed’s closing performance of “Peace in the Valley” is particularly poignant.
“Marie and Rosetta” crackles with swinging music and a well-written script and its history lesson is worth the price of admission, alone. Its little known gems (Rosetta’s wedding to a preacher in Washington. DC.’s old Griffith Stadium drew 25,000 attendees who later watched her perform in her wedding gown), will thrill history buffs as well as music lovers who knew little about this innovative duo.
“Marie and Rosetta” plays through September 30th.