George Brant has written a play about two real-life singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) and Marie Knight (1925-2009). It emerges as a thin if likable drama that enables us to enjoy the main attractions, the terrific singing by Kecia Lewis as Tharpe and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Knight. Step by step they unleash their powerful voices singing a mix of gospel, rhythm-and-blues, soul, swing and touches of rock.
One is taken aback at the outset when we see a stage filled with coffins. The women are in a funeral parlor, lent them for the night to sleep in and rehearse for an impending performance. The scene is 1946 Mississippi and blacks have trouble finding any respectable places to stay in this era of segregation.
The plot, such as it is, involves Sister Rosetta, considered a pioneer in advancing musical forms toward the rock era, having discovered Marie as a person of promising talent. When she heard her singing with Mahalia Jackson, whom Rosetta considers a rival, she snatched Marie away to train and work with her with a view to becoming a hit performing duo, just as they sang together in real life. The dramatic structure has Rosetta bringing out the soul in Marie, who at first is rather conventional and stiff with a more classical bent.
Their rehearsing amounts to one dynamic show for us in the audience. It even looks as if they are really playing piano and guitar, although the music is performed by Deah Harriott (piano) and Felicia Collins (guitar).
The dialogue between the women can get sharp at times, what with the anecdotes Rosetta recounts, and the personal revelations by Marie. But the singing is the real treat, as we hear such numbers as “Where Were You When They Crucified My Lord?,” and the very non-religious, sexy “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.”
“Marie and Rosetta,” an Atlantic Theater Company presentation directed with feeling by Neil Pepe, is an impressive tribute to the two singers who contributed so much to the musical world with their creativity, performing and recording. At the Atlantic Theater Company Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 212-691-5919. Reviewed September 20, 2016.