Thomas Dorsey, the father of black gospel music, was a bluesman first. “Gospel was born from the blues.” So Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis) reminds her protégée, Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones), in George Brant’s new Marie and Rosetta. Tharpe — the real-life singer whose stinging guitar-playing and boisterous gospel sound became part of the DNA of early rock ‘n’ roll — has chosen Knight, a promising ingénue, to tour with her as a duet act. It’s 1946 in Mississippi, where, especially in the black community, the line between the sacred and the secular is carefully guarded. The play documents the pair’s first rehearsal together at, of all places, a funeral home; Knight must decide whether to heed her mother’s admonitions against the Devil’s music or to give in to her own temptation and let God’s music swing.
As it happens, Knight gets over her moral qualms without much of a fight, leaving the rest of the ninety-minute plot to meander. But in the process, Lewis and Jones, two of musical theater’s more undervalued powerhouses, sing a healthy dozen of their characters’ classics. Jones’s best moments are quiet gospel standards like “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” and “Peace in the Valley,” while Lewis, who takes a few numbers to warm up to Tharpe’s demanding vocal style, ultimately finds a joyful howl that smacks the sky. When the pair duet on “Didn’t It Rain” and “Up Above My Head,” with Lewis brandishing an electric guitar and stalking the stage like the goddess Athena, the intimate Linda Gross Theater shakes like thunder.
Neil Pepe’s direction is unassuming, freeing Lewis and Jones to feed off each other’s energy. They plainly enjoy the give-and-take, easily conveying the generosity and love shared by their characters. The actresses’ main obstacles are the thin and sometimes artificial emotional arcs they’re given, so they tend to hide behind their characters’ postures (Knight, stiff; Tharpe, brash), obviously relieved when they’re allowed to sing again.
Riccardo Hernández’s simple set — a piano and a chair, surrounded by coffins —conveys both the séance-like spirit of the production (Tharpe, we learn, was buried in an unmarked grave) and the harsh racism its protagonists faced in the midcentury South (they’re sleeping in a black funeral home because no hotel will put them up). Beyond the warmth of its leads and the spiritedness of its music — and despite its paucity of dramatic tension — the greatest virtue of Marie and Rosetta is the rarely told history it illuminates.
Marie and Rosetta
Directed by Neil Pepe
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
Through October 2