Marie and Rosetta
by John Stoltenberg
I could well make this a one-word review: Wow. After the sensational opening of Marie and Rosetta at Mosaic last night, wow was first word I heard from everyone I talked to, and wow was the first word on my lips as well. This play with music featuring phenomenal performances by four black women is so enrapturing and overwhelming in soul sisterhood and singing power, it leaves one speechless.
The production’s two shining actor-vocalists are Roz White and Ayana Reed. Together they are incandescing in a show that has smash hit written on it in starlight.
White plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the legendary singer-guitarist who in the 1940s merged gospel, jazz, and blues and originated what became known as rock ’n’ roll. It was a swinging, soaring, irresistible synthesis of the sanctified and the sensual. No one before Sister Rosetta Tharp had done what she did. Among those who later acknowledged her importance and influence were Little Richard, Elvis Pressley, Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash. Yet for decades after her death in 1973, her contribution to music history and culture was forgotten. Only recently has it been given its due. Just this year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Playwright George Brant sets the story in 1946 as Rosetta, then 31, rehearses with her protégée, Marie Davis (Reed), on the night before they embark on tour together. They are in a funeral parlor; this being the segregated South, they could get no other lodging. “We are Northern Negroes,” Rosetta says. “We got to be invisible.”
Marie, 23, is freaked out at the prospect of spending the night there. Set Designer Andrew R. Cohen has made the space opulently somber, with three caskets upstage. But an upright piano promises uplift for the living soon as Marie and Rosetta get their hands on the keys.
Actually White and Reed don’t do their own playing. Director Sandra L. Holloway had the inspired idea to position a real pianist on stage, and the superbly nuanced artistry of Ronnette F. Harrison syncs with both characters like a glove. Similarly, when Rosetta picks up her guitar, the strings are fingered by the rocking Barbara Roy Gaskins, stage left. With the quadruple threat of White, Reed, Harrison, and Gaskins under the masterful musical direction of e’Marcus Harper-Short, Marie and Rosetta turns into a soul-stirring exaltation of musical greats then and now.
White’s driving delivery of the show’s first song, “This Train,” got the opening-night audience revved. But it was Reed’s stunning delivery of the second song, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?,” that got goosebumps going. And in the distance between those two songs, one secular and one sacred, the quick-witted script unfolds the engrossing tension between Marie’s pious reverence for the church and gospel and Rosetta’s ease in more worldly venues and genres. Rosetta needs Marie’s piety to get back in the graces of audiences who frowned on Rosetta’s gigs at the Cotton Club and other profane places. But Rosetta also needs Marie to fully share the stage and not be backup. So as the show progresses, Rosetta accustoms Marie to her ways—telling Marie to lose the “vibrator” (vibratto) and showing her what swinging, swiveling hips are all about. And Holloway’s choreographic gifts are on delightful display as White and Reed strut, jump, and shimmy through their electrifying duets. Watching Marie’s transition from trembling churchmouse to Rosetta’s amped-up peer is one of many joys in this show, and never more hilarious than when they partner on the raunchy “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.”
Technically the production is impeccable. Lighting Designer Johnathan Alexander respects the drama with impressive subtlety and nuance. Sound Designer and Engineer Gordon Nimmo-Smith balances voices and instruments with such clarity and authenticity we are never even aware of amplification. And Costume Designer Michael A. Murray gives Marie and Rosetta each a garment that elegantly goes with the story flow and enhances the dance.
There are about a dozen musical numbers in the show—some high points being Rosetta’s dextrous guitar work on “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” the classic “Rock Me,” and the tender “Up Above My Head,” whose simple lyrics sum up Rosetta’s faith in the hereafter:
Up above my head
I hear music in the air
And I really do believe
There’s a Heaven somewhere
Meanwhile in the here and now, over on H Street, there’s a heaven going on upstairs at the Atlas, and the music in the air there has the joint jumping.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Marie and Rosetta plays through September 30, 2018, at Mosaic Theater Company performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.
Playlist for Marie and Rosetta on Spotify by Mosaic Theater Company