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Marie and Rosetta

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 14, 2016

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis
Photo by by Ahron R. Foster

"You give me everything you got."

That commandment, handed down from one goddess to another during the electrifying course of Marie and Rosetta, may as well be the theme statement of George Brant's new play at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. It's spoken in the specific context of one musical giant trying to assess whether a giant-in-training is really worth sharing the stage with, but the glorious gales of musical and emotional one-upmanship it inspires are repeated so often across the 100-minute running time that you'll be remembering its advice almost as well as you will the songs it elicits.

This is the case, by the way, even if you have little preexisting knowledge of (or affinity for) the two remarkable women who are your guides. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was, as she is frequently heralded today, the mother of rock and roll, and combined rhythm and guitar (even electric!) with gospel and swing to create a uniquely devilish-godly sound that pushed her preaching—and the African-American absorption of it—to new heights before it went mainstream (with many white artists) in the 1950s. Marie Knight, a decade or so Tharpe's junior, came out of singing evangelism herself and would go on to be an acclaimed gospel and R&B vocalist in her own right. Brant (who's best known to New York audiences for Grounded, which premiered at The Public last year) has set his sights on capturing, with a bit of additional excursion, the 1946 night the two began working together in Mississippi.

If you're wondering how such different styles could possibly mesh, Brant spends much of the first half of the play showing that, naturally, they don't. Rosetta (Kecia Lewis) "discovered" Marie (Rebecca Naomi Jones) opening for Mahalia Jackson the previous night and snatched her up immediately for her tour. Now, from the funeral parlor that also serves as their hotel room and studio ("We not in New York anymore, honey," Rosetta tells Marie. "We not in Chicago. Can't stay in no hotel down here."), they have but a few hours to prepare for their debut as a team in a tobacco warehouse on the outskirts of town—and there's a lot of work to do. Rosetta is all loud and grinding, soaring to heaven from a starting point deep in the ground. Marie is prim and proper—Rosetta describes her style as "high church"—and doesn't cotton to Rosetta's more suggestive ideas seeping into her musical worship. Further complicating things is that Marie has had the backup mindset drilled into her bones, whereas Rosetta, for all intents and purposes, has never been anything but a star.

Of course the two need to iron this out, and yes, we eventually see how they meet in the middle, in part because neither is precisely who she claims to be—there is a formula for this type of story that Brant does not skirt entirely. Their union is consummated, so to speak, when they run through "Didn't It Rain?": Rosetta gives Marie that commandment, Marie obliges, and magic results. It's then we see—and hear and feel—how the clashing training and perspectives lead to something better, as Rosetta's all-consuming earthiness provides an ironclad complement for Marie's lighter, more heavenly overtones. This plunges us into a kind of musical holy war that sizzles and thrills on every possible level, all but inspiring you to leap to your feat (if not dump your wallet into a collection basket).

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis
Photo by by Ahron R. Foster

This moment scintillates for many reasons: because we've already experienced both women singing alone (Rosetta foremost in a throbbing "This Train" that jolts with theatrical locomotion, Marie with a heartfelt "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?"); because the arrangements and orchestrations (by musical director Jason Michael Webb), played with go-for-broke fervor by offstage musicians Deah Harriott (on piano) and Felicia Collins (on guitar) are so good; because director Neil Pepe has already so amplified their conflict that we need the release as much as they do; and because it is unthinkable that Lewis and Jones, both operating at the height of their considerable powers, could possibly be better.

Most important, it's a jumping-off place for what becomes a more sobering exploration of what success means, for those two particular women in their particular era and for all of us in ours. Fearless though these two may be when performing, they have their own secrets and stumbling blocks that are preventing them from becoming everything they're capable of, and when they tackle these issues directly—with the insight only the other can dispense—we see that there's a lot more to who they were and what they did than their rollicking, spiritual entertainment. Each number (and that's not an exaggeration) is not only a showstopper for the force it bears but also for the emotions and the history behind it that ultimately say a lot more than you might be expecting.

No, Marie and Rosetta is not especially deep or original in its thinking or presentation. What matters, however, is that it's exquisitely crafted, from the design (Riccardo Hernández did the surprisingly witty set, Dede M. Ayite the class-defining costumes, Christopher Akerlind the alternately brash and poignant lighting) to the direction to the portrayals. It's tough to imagine we'll see better musical performances this season than Lewis and Jones do here. They work brilliantly together, effortlessly contrasting each other in physical appearance as well as mien and voice ("Rock Me," when Jones, adopting her most timidity and stiffest spine, takes on Lewis blaring out her soul at maximum trumpet, is perhaps the best illustration, but far from the only one). But they have intricately articulated each woman as an individual, too, so that we're forced to see them as genuine people facing multiple layers of difficult circumstances and not merely the icons they've become over the last 70 years.

The more Brant strips away from them, the more intimate and, strangely, more expansive Marie and Rosetta becomes, until we can no longer see the women's fame but instead only the aching humanity underneath. Once again, the lesson that being true to yourself is only way to find real salvation, is not new. But it doesn't need to be when it's executed this well. Besides, there's a bigger problem: How can the Atlantic afford repairs eight times a week when Lewis, Jones, Brant, and Pepe keep blowing off the roof by giving us everything they got?

Marie and Rosetta
Through October 2
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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