It’s 1946 Mississippi and recording artist Sister Rosetta Tharpe is considering adding a singer to join her show, so she finds the only comfortable spot available for them in the Jim Crow south – a funeral home full of prominently placed caskets! Once she quips about the comfy “deluxe model” and Marie Knight stops fidgeting around sensing ghosts, the two settle in to see if they’d be a good musical match.
The story explores the intersection of their lives that resulted in one of the most remarkable trailblazing musical duos, who influenced countless acts that followed, only to be forgotten by entire generations – until now in Mosaic Theater’s Marie and Rosetta.
Both performers deliver the theatrical goods along with heaping helpings of divine musicality. As Sister Rosetta, Roz White is a known delight from numerous servings at MetroStage, including commandeering the lead role in Bessie’s Blues with strong sinewy tones. She is a force to behold here, comfortable with a solid sense of self, cackling comic delivery and hip-thumping moves.
Ayana Reed, who got much deserved acclaimed in Master Class at MetroStage, bounces with energetic enthusiasm and alluring artistic expression. She starts out giving the impression of being a star-struck youngster barely old enough to leave the family. Once she starts answering Rosetta’s pointed questions about her, uhm “ unsullied state” does she slowly reveal not only has she been kissed, but she’s married with children. The bantering goes back and forth between the two with the greatest of ease as they share stories of their families, romances, and what their unshakeable love for the music.
A major theme throughout the production is the constant struggle between the styles of music that can draw battle lines in the gospel world. In her initial song rendition Reed as Marie demonstrates high class gospel, in the lusciously glorious style of Mahalia Jackson, referred to with nearly high priestess reverence. White as Rosetta commends the beautiful vocals but adds swing and syncopated rhythm to make the tune bounce. Marie holds out as much as she can because she truly is conflicted—even her parents sided with one style or the other. Reed brings a delightful dramatic tension to Marie’s determination to stay true to her beliefs but is finally swayed by Rossetta’s irrepressible rhythms and style. Marie is won over and once she commits, she’s all the way live.
Marie and Rosetta
closes September 30, 2018
Details and tickets
Roz White is simply perfection in showcasing Rosetta’s amazing vocal fluidity, from the moaning, groaning low-down dirty blues to rag-time jazzy swing to full throttle foot stomping gospel. White’s amazing grace of a voice is backed up with heart and verve. She is a wonder.
The instrumental shadow-playing worked with the musicians onstage serving as the actor’s alter personalities. Barbara Roy Gaskins, too, is a wonder when she finally appears playing guitar, sliding notes and sounds like she’s straight from the juke-joint. And don’t get me started when she brings out the electric guitar. The fascinating set-up starts with Ronnette F. Harrison as the pianist Marie. The two sit side by side with the actor simulating playing the instrument while two connect on a visceral level sharing expressions and functioning as one. Meanwhile, Harrison’s accompaniment pivots from high gospel to the funky hip-swaying devil’s music while her own expressions remain focused as Marie.
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If the quartet hadn’t brought down the house by the time Gaskins shows up, they shake the rafters to bring down the rest. It is simply one of the most remarkable times I have had in the theater. Kudos to director Sandra L. Holloway who pulled off this fascinating and engaging experience.
The soul-stirring musical arrangements by eMarcus Harper-Short can be felt from the very opening number “This Train” on to “Sit Down Servant” and the absolutely spine tingling “Heard My Mother Call My Name.” Mercy Me – it just doesn’t get better than this.
The swirling accented dresses, especially the mustard gold for White, costume design by Michael A. Murray, relayed a message with every move, and fit her temperament whether prayerful, provocative, or seductive. The mood-setting lighting by Johnathan Alexander is particularly noteworthy at the beginning and helps to relay the touching ending.
Rosetta Tharpe had a profound influence on such notables as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, and Ray Charles. In the program notes, her style is described as “..a blend of blues, jazz, gospel, and a new sound with more grit and edge than anything that had been heard before.”
Mosaic is offering a full slate of post-show discussions on a variety of topics including conversations about gospel and blues, burden of Jim Crow laws on performers, impact of the church and sexual orientation. There are also multiple connections with D.C, for example, local scholar Gayle Wald who wrote the book Shout, Sister Shout that influenced parts of the script, will lead several of the talk-back discussions.
Timing for this production is especially sensitive with the passing of our legendary icon Aretha Franklin, yet another example of gospel training that hit the stage bringing joy and wonder to all who were graced and blessed to hear her. Voices like hers just don’t come around that often. The trailblazing of these two artists deserves to be shared. Thanks to the designers at Mosaic, opening its fourth season with this D.C. premiere, some of the story is finally getting out.
Marie and Rosetta by George Brant . Directed by Sandra L. Holloway . Starring: Roz White and Ayana Reed . Piano: Ronnette F. Harrison . Guitar: Barbara Roy Gaskins . Musical Director: e’Marcus Harper-Short . Set Design: Andrew R Cohen . Light Designer: Jonathan Alexander . Sound Design Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Costume Design: Michael A. Murray . Properties: Tim Jones . Stage Manager: Hope Villanueva . Produced by Mosaic Theater Company . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.