Friday, November 30, 2018

Marie and Rosetta will Rock your Socks Off

Anyone who knows me even a little knows that one of my great passions is discovering, sharing, and enjoying stories that lie outside of our popular understanding of the world. 


Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

This is especially true of historical stories, which often tend to center middle aged white dudes writing down what they did all day. What about all of the diverse, dynamic people who lie outside of this tiny box - the women, the people of many cultures, the people across the gender and sexuality spectrum? Where did they all go? Why don't we hear about them more?

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

If the explosive success of Hidden Figures two years ago taught us anything, it's that all of us are craving more of these undersold histories - whether we know it or not. Marie and Rosetta, opening tonight at Park Square Theatre, falls smack into this tradition and is an excellent choice for anyone looking to avoid holiday shows, learn about more forgotten historical figures, or enjoy what is easily one of the best musical theater performances on #tctheater stages this year.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

Marie and Rosetta centers on the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a legendary musician who is one of the (completely forgotten) founders of rock and roll music and begat a musical legacy that is thriving to this day. Her history is told through her relationship to Marie Knight, a talented gospel musician who recorded with Sister Rosetta for several years in the 1940s. For some quick background: Sister Rosetta was a highly popular musician in the mid-20th century who was a key musical innovator and cross-genre performer. She is not only responsible for being a vital bridge between musical styles as varied as jazz, gospel and popular music, but also for opening up the world of guitar playing to women and innovating guitar style to include electrical instruments. Her work was a primary influence to now-legendary rock and rollers like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and even the King himself - Elvis Presley.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

So if Sister Rosetta was so influential, why do so few of us remember her now? I suspect it's for two main reasons: one, that she was a black woman - historically one of the least likely kinds of people to be remembered in print or pop culture, a facet of racism that is tragically still in the process of being (very, very slowly) corrected today. Two, we were blessed with an endless embarrassment of riches of black women musicians during Sister Rosetta's time and she gets a little lost in the shuffle. In a thirty year period or so, just look at the list of giant musical stars who were recording simultaneously: Billie Holiday. Ella Fitzgerald. Etta James. Nina Simone. Diana Ross. Mahalia Jackson. Aretha effing Franklin. And so many, many more whose names are not remembered anymore. It's understandable (although very lamentable) that in a crew of such luminaries, Sister Rosetta might fall somewhat to the wayside.

It's long past time to correct that oversight, and director Wendy Knox has assembled the perfect team to do it. The linchpin of the whole thing rests with Jamecia Bennett, who is superb as Sister Rosetta (and may be my favorite performance all year). Bennett has the look, the swag, the dialogue, and especially the pipes - her voice bellows throughout the theater like a sound tsunami, enveloping each and every audience member in a tight, warm, rich embrace. If you're not in tears by her second number or so, I'm not sure you have a soul. I've often wondered if we feel god's presence through our experiences, particularly musical ones - and if that's true, Jamecia Bennett is the closest sound to god I have maybe ever heard. RajanĂ© Katurah Brown is no slouch as Marie Knight either. She has a full, strong voice that happily disonnates with Bennett's velvety tones, and their harmonies are glorious and could easily sell some records of their own. Brown unveils her character's layers like peeling petals off a rose, and we get a rich idea of Rosetta and Marie's love for each other throughout the short show.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

These two ladies are all you ever see on stage, and it's all you ever need. Against the backdrop of a shabby funeral parlor (designed to the perfect understatement by Joseph Stanley) and some cleverly subtle lighting design choices from Michael P. Kittel, their voices soar in perfect unison. Peter Morrow's sound design masterfully enhances their voices without becoming overwhelming, and thanks to him we hear everything from the luxurious low notes to the high ones soaring to heaven in all their splendid glory. Music director Gary Hines keeps a tight ship, and no one will leave unhappy with the songs they hear in this show - particularly Bennett's melancholy and devastatingly emotional solo on "I Looked Down the Line."

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

If you think you're a fan of rock and roll but have never heard of performers like Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Charlie Patton or Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I *highly* suggest you clear a day (or several) to peruse YouTube archives for their work. Every single rock and roll or popular musician - and I am not exaggerating, I literally mean every. single. one. - owes an unfathomable debt to the spectacular and forgotten black musicians of the American south and Mississippi blues delta who innovated techniques, fearlessly learned new instruments, invented lyricism and taught us all what soul really means in music. As Park Square Theatre's program states, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the BeyoncĂ© of her day, and it is truly a tragedy that she is so freely forgotten in our own time. The superb performances in Marie and Rosetta will provide you with a Grade A concert in addition to an overdue history lesson, and plenty of ideas to research in the future. I think this is a great choice if you need something to do this weekend, and it's sure to sell out quickly. For more information or to buy tickets before Marie and Rosetta closes on December 30, click on this link. And for an extra treat, check out footage of the real Sister Rosetta in the video below.