Developed at TheatreWorks' 2015 New Works Festival by award-winning playwright George Brant ("Elephant's Graveyard", "Grounded"), the show focuses mainly on a short segment of Tharpe's life and her relationship with her partner in music (and reportedly for a while, in life), Marie Knight. That decision, rather than taking a broad view, gives the play much of its strength.
Tharpe was a gospel superstar in the 1930s and 1940s, the first to take church music mainstream. Born Rosetta Nubin in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, she traveled throughout the southern states with her mother, a musician and preacher with the Church of God in Christ, a mainly African-American Pentecostal denomination. Widely recognized as a prodigy, Tharpe started performing when she was 6 years old.
She went from the pulpit to the Cotton Club in Harlem, scorching the stage with her electric guitar and powerful vocals. She never left gospel or the church entirely, but she raised eyebrows among more conservative churchgoers for her guitar playing prowess outside of sacred spaces and for singing sexually suggestive crossover songs such as "Four or Five Times" and the boogie-woogie-and-swing inspired "I Want a Tall Skinny Papa."
"Marie and Rosetta" begins at that juncture. In 1946, Tharpe is beginning to be eclipsed by other gospel luminaries such as Mahalia Jackson. She is trying to make a comeback to the church but is still being branded by her secular forays. That year, she spotted Marie Knight performing on a bill with Jackson and immediately invited the younger performer to join her tour.
At their first rehearsal, inside Walter's Funeral Home and Insurance Company in Mississippi, the two women cautiously circle around each other amid the showroom caskets. Tharpe, played by Michelle E. Jordan, a TheatreWorks veteran ("It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Dreamgirls"), is big and brassy, a veteran of the road. Knight, performed by Marissa Rudd, (TheatreWorks' "Tuck Everlasting," last summer's New Works Festival), is tall, svelte and a proper church lady and relative newcomer.
Jim Crow restrictions forced black touring performers to stay where they could, seeking the kindness of strangers and friends rather than at whites-only motels. Knight fears the mortuary's ghosts; Tharpe hilariously praises the comforts of a plush, white-velvet-lined casket. Get used to it. They won't be inside the church but instead playing at a tobacco warehouse on the outskirts of town, she notes.
Knight has other concerns: if working with Tharpe might end her career before it starts because she "is making gospel sound dirty."
But Tharpe has all the pithy rejoinders:
"God don't want the devil to have all the good music," she says.
Jordan owns this show. When she belts out Tharpe's signature rendition of "This Train," she makes the audience want to jump out of their seats and shout, "hallelujah!"
She's a lovable gruff, stacked high with charisma. She also gets to deliver most of the funniest lines in Brant's well-written script.
Rudd initially plays Knight as prim, righteous and tentative. But the two women share a bond that goes beyond their music. Both have man troubles; both are women striving to leave their mark on the world. "Marie and Rosetta" is a story about "sisterhood," the building of a relationship between two women. It's also about choices.
Tharpe tells Knight she can go on a life-long journey sharing her prodigious gifts with the world. Or "you can sing on Sundays for a grateful congregation, kiss your babies and tuck them in at night and be a maid during the week."
As the two formulate their repertoire, with Tharpe's urging, Knight loosens her hips and her voice. And what a voice Rudd has. It is at once operatic, smooth as satin and powerful enough to vibrate the air in the entire auditorium. The synergy between these two women brings out some of the most moving performances. The duet "Didn't It Rain" didn't just hit the sweet spot: It ignited the room.
The actors don't play their own instruments in this play, and that's perhaps its only weakness. It was more believable when they sat behind the piano, but less so when the actors handled the guitars. But the music is performed deftly behind the scenes by William Liberatore on piano and Schuyler McFadden on guitars. Amplified from the stage, the sound was unified with the performances.
Artistic Director Robert Kelley, a lover of rhythm and blues who spent his youth playing piano in bands and riding his bicycle to East Palo Alto's Charm Beauty Salon and Record Store to purchase records by black artists, understands how to stage a production that remains true to this kind of music and the characters. It is at once sinewy and voluptuous — without any excesses.
I don't want to spoil the surprise ending but it will bring the audience to tears and to their feet. Don't be afraid to clap and lift your hands in joy, praise and surrender. Go see "Marie and Rosetta."
What: "Marie and Rosetta."
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Through March 31, Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.
Info: theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.
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