‘Marie and Rosetta’
Through Sept. 30
Mosaic Theater Company at the Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., NE
Sister Rosetta Tharpe? The name may not ring a bell to some, but for those who saw her perform in her heyday, she’s not easily forgotten; and by many in the know, Tharpe is famous as the queer black woman who helped invent rock and roll.
She came up in the church singing gospel but later made the switch to what’s described as gospel combined with incipient rock. What made Tharpe stand out is that she played the guitar while she sang, something that few women were doing in the mid-20th century. In George Brant’s play with music “Marie & Rosetta” at Mosaic Theater, the spotlight focuses on Tharpe’s professional and personal relationship with another gospel girl-turned-popular singer, Marie Knight.
The action is set in 1946 Jim Crow Mississippi. While on the road the women find digs wherever they can. Tonight, they’re seeking shelter in a well-appointed funeral parlor replete with shiny open caskets. The women are getting to know each other and in turn we get to know them. Rosetta (Roz White), the older of the two, is raucous and fun. Marie (Ayana Reed) is seemingly more genteel and innocent but eventually reveals a rocky past and a thirst for adventure. They discuss relationships gone sour and future professional plans.
Rather than have Knight and White simulate playing piano and guitar, respectively, with the actual musicians offstage, able director Sandra L. Holloway and musical director e’Marcus Harper-Short have put the actors’ fabulous musical counterparts (Ronnette F. Harrison on piano and Barbara Roy Gaskins on guitar) in full view of the audience and made them part of the story. All four women are onstage as they perform a varied jazzy and passionately soulful playlist. It’s terrific.
Prior to becoming involved with Knight, Tharpe had been married twice and had relationships with women. Knight had married also and had children. When the pair successfully teamed up in the 1940s, they not only performed together but also took control of the business end of things, highly unusual for the era.
We hear Rosetta compliment Marie’s good looks — her pretty face and shapely figure. But the play doesn’t explicitly explore the women’s’ sexual relationship. In writing Tharpe’s biography “Shout, Sister, Shout!,” author Gayle Wald interviewed many of Rosetta’s contemporaries and confirmed rumors that Rosetta and Marie were lovers. For a time, they were a successful gay power couple. The play acknowledges that for three years the two women set up housekeeping and lived as a family. But after a house fire that killed Marie’s mother and her children, the relationship fell apart. Marie left the act and returned to singing exclusively in church.
Tharpe went on to marry another man and continued to perform, albeit in sadder venues. Her star dimmed rapidly and in 1970 she died from a stroke in Philadelphia. But in Marie and Rosetta we witness the joyous and empowered lives of two women at the top their game. It’s exciting.
The cast is top notch. Roz White, a charismatic local actor with a strong, soulful voice, is known for her Helen Hayes Award-wining star turn in Studio Theatre’s “Bessie’s Blues,” and as well as a string of fabulous musical leads at MetroStage in Alexandria. Ayana Reed is moving and delightful as Marie. Her bio includes stellar notices for her performances in both opera and musical theater.
At a recent performance at Atlas, 80-something audience member Juanita accompanied by her charming granddaughter recalls seeing the real Sister Tharpe in the early ‘50s at Howard Theatre. She remembers Tharpe as more a gospel singer. She was the first woman that Washingtonians had ever seen who sang and played guitar on stage. She says seeing her was “a big deal.” Tharpe’s shows always sold out.