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Theatre in Review: Marie and Rosetta (Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater)

Kecia Lewis. Rebecca Naomi Jones. Photo. Ahron R. Foster

Marie and Rosetta begins with an arrestingly strange image: A middle-aged woman, seated in a room filled with coffins, having her makeup attended to by a young lady. You could sense the puzzled silence in the audience when the lights came up on this tableau at the performance I attended; as openers go, it's a real attention-getter. So compelling it is that one feels a little disappointed when the action starts to move along more conventional lines. Hold that thought, however; playwright George Brant has a surprise up his sleeve. Clearly, he has a knack for toying with your expectations.

The older woman is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was a powerhouse of mid-20th-century gospel music; her younger attendant is Marie Knight, who also had a not-inconsiderable musical career, for a time as Tharpe's stage partner. They are somewhere in Mississippi, in 1946, in the back room of a funeral home. As Rosetta caustically notes, black musicians traveling the South can't expect to find commercial accommodations; they must rely on local black business owners to provide them with a place to sleep. That's why they have a white bus driver, she adds; after each performance, he forages for food that nobody will sell to them.

Rosetta is laying down the rules of the road to Marie, whom she has picked out of an all-girl quartet singing backup behind Mahalia Jackson. Rosetta's career is on the wane, as she has lost the trust of her core audience of working-class churchgoers -- whom she collectively calls "Leroy and Waldalyne" -- for playing the nightclub circuit with a program of slightly blue material. She sees in Marie's nice-girl manner a counterweight to her own boisterous singing style. But first she has to loosen Marie up, boost her confidence, and teach her to rock those hymns. (Criticizing Marie's ladylike way with the ivories, she says, "You gotta get your piano sounding a little younger, girl. Your piano's an old maid with a grey tabby on her lap.") For her part, Marie has to decide if her immortal soul can stand constant exposure to a mentor who has strutted the stage with the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Hot Lips Page.

Even when Marie and Rosetta seems to be about little more than getting the act together, it makes for a fine 90 minutes, thanks to some salty dialogue and sizzling vocals, courtesy of two magnificently equipped actresses. Kecia Lewis seems to have effortlessly slipped inside Rosetta's skin, whether wickedly imitating her archrival Mahalia's all-too-ladylike style, dismissing her ex-husbands as "squirrels" ("squirrelin' away my money for a rainy day"), and announcing, as nicely as she can, "A diva has her limits." Of course, this Broadway veteran shakes the theatre's foundations with her soul-stirring renditions of "This Train" and "Rock Me," and, if she can work the innuendos in "I Want a Tall Skinny Papa" for all they're worth, she ensures that Rosetta maintains an imperturbable dignity rooted in her very real faith. She also makes something acutely sad and moving of a speech in which she recalls the loneliness she felt appearing at the Cotton Club, "playing clubs your friends can't set foot in/Putting on blackface for the saint and sinner acts/Playing the dumb Holy Roller for a laugh/Staring out at all those smiling and drinking white faces."

Equally fine is Rebecca Naomi Jones as Marie, who is as thrilled at the opportunity to appear with her idol as she is worried that she might be hopping a fast bus to perdition. When pressed by Rosetta, she frantically insists, "I'm fun. I think. I'm plenty fun." There's certainly a wicked glint in her eye as she admits to having a spouse she doesn't much like, or when she confesses playing some of Rosetta's racier numbers while practicing the piano in church. She's a commanding singer, as well, mesmerizing with "Were You There" and "There'll be Peace in the Valley." When she joins Lewis on "Didn't It Rain," the effect is shiver-inducing. The easy interplay between Jones and Lewis is so accomplished that, by the end of the evening, you feel like Marie and Rosetta are two old friends.

For much of its running time, despite its considerable charms, Marie and Rosetta comes across as a classier version of Million Dollar Quartet, offering a bit of gospel music history as a framework for a program of songs associated with Tharpe. But the script is deepened by its awareness of the era's racial politics and Brant's clear affection for the characters. And he has in his back pocket a time-bending plot twist that casts a powerfully melancholy spell, revealing just how deep the connection between Marie and Rosetta will prove to be, even in times of tragedy.

Neil Pepe, the director, handles these slender dramatic goods with extreme delicacy, extracting two finely shaded performances that nevertheless make room for some galvanic vocals, backed by the excellent guitarist Felicia Collins and pianist Deah Harriott. There's also fine work from Riccardo Hernández, who provides a set defined by coffins and ceiling fans; Christopher Akerlind, whose understated lighting is beautiful to behold; and Dede M. Ayite, whose costumes firmly root the action in its mid-'40s time frame. I have some slight reservations about the sound, by SCK Sound Design, namely that the dialogue scenes are slightly overamplified, probably to keep them stylistically matched with the musical numbers. (As is the case with Fiorello!, it appears that reinforcement is now de rigueur for musicals, even in the smaller houses.)

Brant, last represented in New York with Grounded, about the US military drone program, is a singular voice, armed with a wide range of interests and a knack for creating female characters. As Marie and Rosetta reaches its lovely, melancholy finale, you realize just how much you have come to care for two women at mid-century, armed with talent and faith, making their way in a world that has little use for strong, independent black ladies. If you spend a couple of hours with Marie and Rosetta, I doubt you'll be disappointed. -- David Barbour

(30 September 2016)

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