Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Notice, I did not write that Ms. Bennett and Ms. Brown play Rosetta and Marie, but that both of these gifted actor-singers fully become their characters, free of any artifice. From the play's first moment, we are in the authentic company of Rosetta and Marie, swept away with them to another era. It is 1946, in Mississippi. Marie Knight was part of a gospel quartet touring with emerging gospel star Mahalia Jackson, whom Rosetta calls, somewhat demeaningly, "Saint Mahalia." After seeing her perform, Rosetta picks out a special gift in Marie's voice and in her presence, and manages to lure her away from the quartet and bring her glory full out for all to see and hear. Marie accepts, but not without some trepidation about what she is getting herself into.
At first blush the two are an odd couple, to be sure. Rosetta, swaying her hips, pours out the phrase "rock me" with a throaty, suggestive growl from the gut, though she insists on being called Sister Rosetta, not Miss Rosetta. Marie is pious, embarrassed by Rosetta's swagger, and worried about displeasing the almighty. We come to learn about both, about Rosetta's religious roots, including her early marriage to an abusive preacher, and Marie's underlying yearning for a life beyond the protective eye of her Mama. We also watch them insinuate themselves into one another's music, Marie opening up and finding ways to express both heartache and lustiness in her song, Rosetta remembering the spiritual firmament that launched and continues to sustain her music.
The play takes place, mostly, in real time, during Rosetta and Marie's first rehearsal together. The lights rise on, of all things, a funeral parlor. Cushioned coffins line the walls, with bluesy dresses suitable for a juke joint oddly strewn about. The older woman sits facing the audience with her eyes closed while the younger applies makeup to her. When Marie gets no response from Rosetta, it seems as if she is being prepared for her place in one of the coffins. With a start, Rosetta says she must have fallen asleep, and from that start she never stops. She explains to her protégé that, while in the cities up north she performs in swank placesin New York, at Carnegie Hall and the Cotton Club, on bills with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, but in the south, they play in barns, warehouses, and any such spot where black folks could gather for a night out. It's 1946 Mississippi, and Jim Crow reigns. Their band travels with a white bus driver so there's someone who can go in to purchase their food. And forget hotels: they count on the kindness of those few good Samaritans who will lend a hand, offering whatever lodging they can, even if it means sleeping in a mortician's front parlor, which is the case after their gig tonight.
Rosetta sets out to get to know her newly acquired performing partner and prepare her for what will be expected on stage. Marie is not sure she can be what Rosetta wants her to be, but Rosetta addresses those fears one by one, including a very funny bit where she teaches staid Marie to sway her hips. Marie's mother made Rosetta promise to bring her baby back "the way I found you," prompting Rosetta to pump Marie to find out just how had she been found, in terms of her morals and experience. Through these and other conversations, we get to know what sets these two strong women apart and what they share, such as the joy music gave them in their youths, and their suffering at the hands of abusive men.
But it's the music that raises Marie and Rosetta from a well-crafted music bio to a soaring celebration of the sounds of gospel, soul, blues, and rootsy rock. Starting with Sister Rosetta's joyful rendition of "This Train," followed by Marie's more dignified by moving "Were You There," they come to the number in which their ties to nightclub and to church collide: "Rock Me." To no one's surprise, Rosetta's deep-throated, hip-swaying, truth-telling "Rock Me" prevails. From there, each song is performed with glorious power and heart, some solo and some as duets. There is the comedic "Sit Down, (I Can't Sit Down)," the beseeching cry for truth in "Didn't It Rain," the lusty "Tall Skinny Papa," and the smart-alecky "Four Five Times."
Many of the songs were part of Marie and Rosetta's repertoire when, for several years, they performed together, while others come from earlier or later periods of each singer's career. They serve to advance the growing relationship between these two women, to illustrate Marie's drift from pure gospel to Rosetta's rocking sensuality, and the inner challenges each of them faces. When Marie reveals the truth about all she has left behind, and she must choose between a life on the road or the life she had, she weighs her challenging decision in the powerfully wrought "Search Me, Lord." Later, Rosetta reflects on the heartache beneath her flashy life, a "big star" who can't eat dinner in the swank New York clubs she plays, with "I Looked Down the Line," a showstopping tour-de-force. To clinch the deal, Rosetta brings out her secret weapon: an electric guitar, which she is about to introduce to her audiences. Marie wonders if there isn't something evil about it, but she is soon on board with the celebratory "Strange Things." Finally, Brant concludes with a flash forward to describe the years that followed for both Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Wright, culminating with a rapturously poignant "Peace in the Valley."
Director Wendy Knox has great talent and material to work with, and brings out the best in it. She masterfully handles the timing of the many transitions of mood and tempo, the intense responsiveness of Bennett and Brown to each other's musical work, and the use of sound and lighting to underscore the story. Praise also goes to music director Gary D. Hines, who seamlessly melds the splendid vocals with Michal May and Natalia Peterson's rousing instrumental performances.
Joseph Stanley's atmospheric set serves the play extremely well, with the fading wallpaper peeling at both sides of the funeral parlor setting, revealing diagonal wooden slats through which, when the light shines (lighting beautifully designed by Michael P. Kittel), it really does feel as if glory is entering this space. Aaron Chvatal's period-perfect costumes tell us a little about each of the two singers, while Peter sound designer Morrow has masterfully worked out the synchronization between the actors' performances and the instrumentalists backing them up.
As I began, there are many reasons to appreciate this production: George Brant's strong, authentically scripted play; the chance to discover Sister Rosetta Tharpe, called by some the "Godmother of Rock and Roll" and an influence on the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix; a searing portrait of the life of a bold musician trying to push the envelope with two major barriers in the way, her gender and her color; and expert direction and design work that does everything right and keeps the audience mesmerized for near two hours, without intermission. But let's face it, the music is number one. Bennett and Rajané Katurah Brown, in turn and in harmony, release electrifying musical moments that touch the depths and heights of the human experience. Their performances, and this production, will surely be remembered as highlights of the theater season.
Marie and Rosetta, through December 30, 2018, on the Proscenium Stage at Park Square Theatre, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; students (18 or younger and college students with ID), $16.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military, $10.00 discount. For tickets and information, call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Playwright: George Brant; Director: Wendy Knox; Scenic Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Aaron Chvatal; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Wig Design: Robert A. Dunn; Properties Design: Abbe Warmboe; Dramaturg: Peter Morgan Holmes; Stage Manager: Jared Zeigler; Assistant Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty, Assistant Sound Designer: Charlotte Deranek.
Cast: Jamecia Bennett (Rosetta) and Rajané Katurah Brown (Marie)
Musicians: Michael May (guitar), Natalia Peterson (piano)