Sunday, September 18, 2016

Marie and Rosetta

My third biographical play of last week, the world premiere of George Brant’s Marie and Rosetta, was another involving afternoon in the theatre thanks to the powerhouse voices of Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones and Brant’s witty and ultimately poignant script. The Atlantic Theatre Company production, under the direction of Neil Pepe, offers a visit with the late gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Lewis) as she prepares for a performance and tour in 1946 Mississippi.

“You’ve got to know what your gifts are worth,” she tells Marie Knight (Jones), the 23-year-old singer she has just plucked out of backup work to be her performing partner.

Lewis’s Rosetta knows her worth, and she shares her singing techniques and life lessons with Marie as the two prepare in a funeral home, the only place Rosetta says is open to black entertainers in the Deep South. This will not only be where they rehearse; they are to sleep there that night as well. Marie is spooked (pun intended) by the caskets, but Rosetta assures her “they’re nothing but a bunch of souls gone to glory.”

Their stage that evening will be in a warehouse. “We ain’t playing no Carnegie Hall tonight,” Rosetta says with resigned acceptance. By that time she was a big star, a contemporary of Mahalia Jackson, “Saint Mahalia,” she sarcastically calls her rival for her “high church” singing. Rosetta prefers to add some “swinging hips” to her performances.

During the 90 minutes with no intermission, Rosetta wins over Marie, who at first is horrified by the older singer’s attempts to get her to drop her own high church singing and put some swing into her gospel. “Your joy has hips,” Marie says reproachfully.

But Rosetta is determined to loosen up her protégé, in her piano accompaniment as well as her singing. “Your piano’s an old maid with a gray tabby on her lap,” she scolds.

Rosetta makes her a deal. “You swing it for me and I’ll church it up for you. It’s hips or the highway.”

In real life the two women were a hugely successful performing duo. Rosetta had already achieved fame in the 1930s and 40s, singing with the likes of Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. She was also considered the queen of “race records” and was admired for her guitar playing and electric guitar playing as well as her singing. Elvis and Jimi Hendrix credited her as inspiring their careers.

I first heard Lewis (right in photo) when she sang with the Paul Winter Consort. She nearly blew the dome off of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the world’s largest cathedral. After she finished singing "His Eye is on the Sparrow," Winter said he didn’t know anything on land that could compete with that so he followed with a recording of whales. That was nearly 30 years ago and she’s still got the pipes. As does Jones. They treated us to about a half dozen gospel and blues numbers — I really loved “I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa” as well as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” I felt I was one of the souls gone to glory. Although they are the only two characters, their voices have the effect of a mighty chorus of gospel voices.

Marie and Rosetta features some mean piano and guitar playing. Although the actresses do a good job of faking it, at least for the piano, the real musicians are revealed at the curtain call — Deah Harriott on piano and Felicia Collins on guitar.

The show also features scenic design by Riccardo Hernández, costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy and music direction by Jason Michael Webb.

The other two biographical shows I saw last week were Maestro, about Leonard Bernstein, and Fiorello!, about the former mayor of New York. I recommend all three.

No comments: