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Marie and Rosetta

We not in New York anymore honey. We not in Chicago. Can't stay in no hotel down here. —Rosetta

But you're famous —Marie

To some folk. To the thousand or so Leroys and Wandalyns coming tonight To the rest of Mississippi I'm just another nigger. — Rosetta

Marie and Rosetta
L-R: Kecia Lewis as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Marie Knight.
The above quoted exchange takes us back to 1946 and puts us into the Mississippi showroom of Walter's Funeral Home and Insurance Company. Here's where Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis), a guitar strumming gospel singer who performs not just in churches but nightclubs, has brought singer-pianist Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones) for a trial run for their working as a team.

Marie and Rosetta
The real Rosetta and Marie in a picture in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
What happens during this get-acquainted meeting between the two women — one in her early 30s but looking older, the other in her early 20s but looking much younger — was invented by George Brant. But this isn't a play about two fictional women rehearsing for their newly formed partnership. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a star among famous gospel singers of the 1930 to 1940 era. Her mix of spiritual lyrics with rhythmic accompaniment influenced famous rock and rollers enough to earn her a place in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. And the character of Marie Knight is just as real. She was a member of a gospel quartet opening act for Mahalia Jackson until Rosetta sought her out thinking that she would help her to win back the church concert fans who were put off by by her crossing over to perform in commercial clubs as well as churches.

The picture of the duo in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame proves that Rosetta's instincts that she and Marie would be a successful team were right. The conceit of Mr. Brant's play is this: Though Rosetta needed to get back into the good graces of the church folks who were put off by her appearances in the more worldly club scene, she also needed for Marie to give free rein to her own more vibrant sense of rhythm, both as a singer and pianist. While the two women's meeting and its details are invented, you only have to look up each woman's Wikipedia entry to know that the revelations about the two women's lives are indeed a fact-based prequel to their successful duo concerts.

Unless you're up on your soul music history, neither of these once famous soul sisters is likely to be instantly familiar to you as someone like Aretha Franklin. But for all the historical data incorporated into Brant's script, the prime appeal of Marie and Rosetta rests wth the music and the performances. His story is essentially a framing device for a terrific, concert — a concert vibrant enough to make even non-gospel fans tap their feet and applaud after each number. The music may even make you forgive the playwright's contrived trick ending (spoiler alert: Riccardo Hernandez's the set pretty much gives it away).

Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones make this 2-hander soar dramatically as well as musically. Both are fine actors and have big belting vocals— but neither is an instrumentalist. Yet, the way they mimic hitting the piano's keys and strumming the guitar's strings makes it hard to believe that guitarist Felicia Collins and pianist Deah Harriott and not they are providing this play with music's instrumental accompaniment.

The action leading into the music revolves around Rosetta's efforts to get her young protege to let go of the strictly high church sound and embrace the faster, wilder tempo that propelled her own career. Rosetta recognizes that the younger woman's talent probably tops her own but, as she puts it "You better than me yeah but the way you play? You gotta get your piano sounding a little younger girl. Your piano's an old maid with a grey tabby on her lap."

The playing it younger and looser lesson starts with one of Tharpe's " biggest recorded hits, "Gospel Train." By the time the two women actually sing and play together the show really rocks. If only, the music didn't come to a halt with that rather clunky trick finale.

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Marie and Rosetta by George Brant

Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Kecia Lewis as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Marie Knight
Musicians:Felicia Collins-Guitar; Deah Harriott-Piano
Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez
Costume design by Dede Ayite
Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind
Sound design by SCK
Music direction, arrangements and orchestrations by Jason Michael Webb
Stage Manager: Michael Domue
Running Time: 90 minutes, No Intermission
Atlantic Theater Companys Linda Gross Theater
. Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. Sunday evening performance 7pm
From 8/24/16; opening 9/14/16; closing 10/16/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/09 press preview

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