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On Tuesday, True Colors Theatre Company canceled remaining performances of "Marie and Rosetta." The play chronicles trailblazing gospel musicians Marie Knight (Jasmine Ellis, left) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Amitria Fanae).

Playwright brings drama of gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe to True Colors

Last year, a meme went viral on social media. It proclaimed: “A queer Black woman invented rock ‘n’ roll.” 

It was news to all but studious audiophiles. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an Arkansas-born guitar virtuosa who died in 1973, is finally getting some overdue recognition for her musical contributions. She was the first gospel superstar and a pioneer of the electric guitar, influencing Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and others. Tharpe’s 1945 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day” was the first gospel record to “cross over,” hitting No. 2 on Billboard’s “race records,” the term used for what later became rhythm and blues, or R&B.

“Marie and Rosetta” playwright George Brant

Now Tharpe has inspired a fictionalized play, Marie and Rosetta, running through December 30 at Southwest Arts Center. The Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company production is directed by Andrea Frye, with S. Renee Clark as musical director. Rich in song, it explores the first rehearsal night between Tharpe (Amitria Fanae) and Marie Knight (Jasmine Ellis), her protégée whom she poached from a young Mahalia Jackson. 

We connected with playwright George Brant, who lives in the Cleveland area, to discuss these artists who now are hailed as one of the great duets in music history.

ArtsATL: How did you discover Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

George Brant: I grew up in a musical household. My mother taught piano, and my brother played guitar. I worked at a record store. On the first collaboration between Robert Plant and Allison Krauss there is a tribute to Sister Rosetta that is such a strange and haunting song. I listened to it over and over, and then I discovered videos of (Tharpe) on YouTube. I thought: “How did I not know this person even existed?” There she is, wailing away on a guitar, getting nasty with it, so I was like: “Who is this woman? Why don’t I know her?”

ArtsATL: Was Tharpe a controversial figure in her day, for blending the sacred and the secular?

Brant: She had one foot in the church and one in the Cotton Club. Her church-going audience felt she should eliminate the boogie-woogie from her act. She played gospel, but played it in a swinging style, or a blues style. And she was one of the first to play an electric guitar, which she caught a lot of flak for, as well. But she wanted to express her full personhood. She knew who she was, and she stuck to that throughout her career, constantly adding new songs to her repertoire.

ArtsATL: How much of your play derives from facts we know?

Brant: It is drawn from real life, from their relationship. One of the joys of writing a play is that you have some control over events, though. I tried to imagine their first night rehearsing together. They apparently clicked right away, and Sister Rosetta, very generously, elevated Marie to stardom. Marie, who was also a piano player, is treated as a co-equal in the play. There are 14 songs performed, so you get a night chock-full of good music. It is hard to tell which singer is singing what. Sister Rosetta’s generosity appealed to me; she was a positive person, always giving joy to other people.

ArtsATL: Can you tell us more about Marie?
“She had one foot in the church and one in the Cotton Club,” playwright George Brant says of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Amitria Fanae, right).

Brant: Marie Knight had a gorgeous, rock-solid contralto that contrasted magnificently with Rosetta’s more spirited soprano. Even after Rosetta and Marie parted ways as a singing duo, they still reunited frequently, with Marie even serving as Rosetta’s maid of honor at her third wedding. Marie was a more traditional gospel singer than Rosetta, but tried her hand at secular music as well, with some limited success. She returned to the gospel fold, and even was was the host of TV Gospel Time, a Sunday morning ’60s television show. Marie eventually became a pastor, and kept recording into her 80s. Her final recording was 2007’s wonderful Let Us Get Together.

ArtsATL: What obstacles did these artists face in the 1930s and 1940s? 

Brant: So many. Being African-American and traveling in the segregated South, they were forced to rely on the kindness of strangers for their food and lodging, often staying at someone’s home or sleeping on their bus. And they were women on top of that. It’s amazing what they went through. The play takes place at a funeral home, where they were allowed to spend the night.

ArtsATL: Do you address issues of sexual orientation?

Brant: No. I felt that would be presumptuous, and both strenuously denied it. That’s one advantage of setting the play on the first night they get together — I don’t have to deal directly with that speculation. The play leaves it open to interpretation. They clearly loved each other, in some way.

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Candice Dyer’s work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Garden and GunGeorgia Trend and other publications. She is the author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.

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