Sister Rosetta Tharpe, known as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, deserves promotion to, and respect from, modern audiences. Marie and Rosetta, the one-act two-hander now onstage at Northlight Theatre, showcases her singing and electric guitar playing to great effect, thanks to Bethany Thomas, who captures the joyful, subversive performance style that enabled Tharpe to walk the tightrope between church and secular music as she barreled down the gospel highway with plenty of detours into high-society nightclubs.
The play takes us through Tharpe’s first rehearsal with soon-to-be-protégée Marie Knight (Alexis J. Roston, fresh-faced, bursting with talent and possibly not quite as devout as she lets on) in the Mississippi funeral parlor where they’ll sleep after performing that evening in a tobacco warehouse. Such were the indignities heaped upon Black performers in the segregated South of the 1940s.
The show shines during the many musical numbers, when these two women breathe fresh life into Tharpe’s hits–“This Train,” “Rock Me,” “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” and “Strange Things Happening Every Day” among them.
As cabaret, it works wonderfully well. But as a play, it lacks narrative tension. We know going in that Tharpe and Knight will tour together, and their minor sparring over how much Tharpe should dial back her slyly bawdy style to get back into the gospel world’s good graces is resolved with minimal conflict. There’s not even much of a will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension between them; it’s more of a when-will-they?
Surely not during their first pre-show rehearsal. And that’s the other issue. The play’s climax delivers a jarring M. Night Shyamalan twist that leads to about 10 minutes of exposition of events that would have been plenty dramatic if they were actually portrayed in the show.
But the characters are engaging. The music is fantastic. Director E. Faye Butler and her cast get the most out of the flawed but congenial script by George Brant. And Roston delivers a beautiful final moment. All of which adds up to a show worth seeing. One request, though: Turn up that amp. Guitar playing that inspires the likes of Jimi Hendrix should be cranked up loud.
Marie and Rosetta runs through August 6 at Northlight Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Michael Brosilow