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George Brant's "Marie and Rosetta" chronicles trailblazing musicians Marie Knight (Jasmine Ellis, left) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Amitria Fanae). True Colors Theatre's production is at Southwest Arts Center.

Review: “Marie and Rosetta” rocks, but it’s more music revue than deep dive

In her lifetime, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” deftly mixed blues, jazz and gospel music, infusing it with swagger and attitude and delivering gospel to the secular world. She played with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway and directly influenced Elvis, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Bob Dylan, among many others.

She was also one of the first performers — and certainly one of the first women — to slay on the electric guitar. As one tribute in The Guardian put it: “With a Gibson SG in her hands, Sister Rosetta could raise the dead. And that was before she started to sing.” 

As Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Amitria Fanae delivers an “absorbing showstopper of a performance,” writes ArtsATL critic Alexis Hauk.

In short: Tharpe was a major badass who was far ahead of her time. And, especially given that her name has faded from mainstream recognition since her death in 1973, her shamefully underrecognized brilliance is ripe for the biographical treatment. Therefore, the idea of a musical about Tharpe seems like an instant formula for edge-of-your-seat theater. 

Sadly, as conceived by playwright George Brant, Marie and Rosetta, which kicks off True Colors Theatre Company’s first season back in front of a live audience since the start of the Covid pandemic, the boundless possibilities for such a tale serve merely as a kind of glue to hold together a hit list of 14 songs. The result is more a musical revue than a fully realized telling of the icon’s life and legacy.

Running roughly an hour and a half without intermission at Southwest Arts Center, the play starts promisingly enough, taking place in 1946 in the showroom of a funeral home in Mississippi. There, wedged between two coffins, rising gospel music ingénue Marie Knight (Jasmine Ellis) and Tharpe (Amitria Fanae) busily prepare for their first show together, turning the macabre setting into a makeshift green room and rehearsal space. 

They’ll also need to crash here for the night, we find out, because of Jim Crow segregation, which barred Black performers from staying in White-only lodging while touring the South. (Rosetta explains at one point that this is why she travels with a White bus driver on tour, so that he can get them food, given the limited access she and the rest of her band have to these racist places.)

Throughout the show, we watch as the two women hash out their differences, letting their voices gracefully meld together and their undeniable chemistry swell. 

The details of Tharpe’s life are fascinating: Born in Arkansas, she and her family moved to Chicago when she was young (her mother also attended the same church as Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother). Tharpe picked up the guitar at four years old, and at age six, she accompanied her mother to perform with a traveling evangelist troupe. 

In the play, we get small glimpses into some of this background, in memories recounted by Rosetta — such as how she slyly tried to scoop up pennies being thrown from the balcony after those performances by sliding them off the stage  under her feet, rather than kneeling, as her mother admonished her never to do. “I didn’t stoop; I shuffled,” she quips.

Just like those sparse biographical details, the play mostly skims over the multifaceted love story at its center. Tharpe had relationships with men and women, and some accounts suggest Marie and Rosetta were involved romantically. But even if they were not an item in the strictest sense, it’s clear that they had a close relationship that broke conventions of the time, which would have been compelling to explore at greater length. At multiple points, when it seems like these characters might get close enough to almost kiss or share some physically intimate moment beyond sitting together at the piano, nothing happens.

Indeed, without spoiling too much, the first three-quarters of this show have been structured to tell one kind of story, while the last 20 minutes or so turns that format on its head, drifting into magical realism and heavy exposition dump. Unfortunately, that final quarter contains the show that would have been most compelling to watch the whole time.

And it’s possible to theorize why when you read more about the playwright himself.

Jasmine Ellis, as Marie Knight in “Marie and Rosetta,” performs a roof-rattling vocal.

In a recent interview with ArtsATL, Brant said he discovered Tharpe by way of Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ tribute to her, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” featured on their first collaborative album, 2007’s Raising Sand. “That is such a strange and haunting song,” Brant recalled. “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?’”

The problem is, it’s unclear from the script itself whether his research in assembling this play, which premiered in 2016, extended beyond just playing catch-up on the fundamental facets of her life. The dialogue often feels like bullet points from a documentary — quick factoids rather than intimate scenes, stakes, or insight into the characters’ interior lives.

None of this is the fault of director Andrea Frye or musical director S. Renee Clark, or the two lead actors, who do the best they can with the slight script. 

Fanae delivers a stunning turn as Rosetta, bringing forth the strength, humor, and rebelliousness of the singer, and making it clear that those facets can often serve as a shield from significant trauma, pain and hardship. When she sings, she tears the very air you breathe in twain. It’s an absorbing showstopper of a performance. (Guitar parts are credited to Spencer Bean, keyboards to Clark.) 

As Marie, Jasmine Ellis gets less to work with — often planted behind a piano or saddled with stiff-sounding lines to emphasize the contrast between her prim and proper attitude toward church music and Rosetta’s boundary-pushing approach. “Your joy has hips,” Marie tells Rosetta. But wow, what a voice Ellis has — despite the character’s limitations as written, the actress shines with each emotive note. 

In the end, the biggest disappointment of this almost-musical, which runs through December 30, is how it leaves you wanting so much more. It’s frustrating to wonder what might have been with more substance — especially with performances this good and music this electrifying.

::

Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the AtlanticMental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian magazine. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.

 

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