“You should learn something new every day.”
It’s a mantra that actor/singer Jamecia Bennett, lead singer of the Grammy-winning Sounds of Blackness and mother of “American Idol” finalist Paris Bennett, has followed for work and play.
She learned to play drums for “Passing Strange” at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis years ago. Now she’s studying guitar for her role as Rock Hall of Famer Rosetta Tharpe in “Marie and Rosetta,” a music-infused one-act play opening this week at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
Tharpe (1915-1973) was a gospel, blues and rock pioneer who shredded the electric guitar before Jimi Hendrix was even conceived. While considered a godmother of rock ’n’ roll, she’s relatively unknown compared with the stars she influenced, including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin. She was married three times, but also had relationships with women.
“Sister Rosetta was the Beyoncé of her time,” Bennett said. “She had a wedding — to a man — that was attended by 25,000 people in a stadium. But she was so far ahead of her time, people didn’t know what to do with her.”
Bennett identifies deeply with Tharpe, an affinity stoked in childhood. As the daughter of recording artist Ann Nesby and granddaughter to performers on the gospel circuit, Bennett hails from a musical family where Sister Rosetta was often talked about. Bennett also sees similarities in their lives, including navigating the tension between growing up in the church and making a living in the secular world.
For Tharpe, that meant performing in a prim and proper dress, sometimes backed with white-robed choirs — all the while rocking out.
Bennett also has raised eyebrows among religious folks because her hit recordings with Sounds of Blackness were played in nightclubs.
“I remember when ‘Optimistic’ came out, and we were playing it in church and it was being played at the gay clubs,” she said. “Ooh, child, some people about lost their minds. Imagine Rosetta during her time dealing with the same type of questions about being in the church or the secular world.”
“If [gospel icon] Mahalia [Jackson] was like the saint, Rosetta was not so much the sinner as the edgier Christian that most of the young people weren’t supposed to listen to,” Bennett said. “She played places like the Cotton Club, where she did more suggestive songs.”
Some of those songs are in “Marie and Rosetta.” The two-person show revolves around a rehearsal by Tharpe and Marie Knight, her younger acolyte, friend and ultimately lover. They’re touring the country during the segregation era, entertaining huge crowds even as they confront social challenges. As the play begins, we see them in a Mississippi funeral home, where they’re sleeping in coffins because they weren’t allowed to rent hotel rooms in that city.
Playwright George Brant, whose solo show “Grounded” was twice produced by Frank Theatre, discovered Tharpe in 2012 while listening to an album by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. He was mesmerized by the track “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us.” He learned that the song was about a real person and looked up Tharpe on YouTube.
“My mind was blown,” he said. “As I was watching her, I could feel reality bending around me. Here’s this woman, dressed conservatively and doing things with the guitar — bending notes, being aggressive with the whammy bar — that you associate with male rock gods. And she was doing all of this decades before anybody.”
Tharpe has gotten more attention in recent years, leading up to her Rock Hall of Fame induction last April. There’s even a line of Gibson guitars named in her honor.
“Even with all this elevated attention she’s gotten recently, I still feel that people don’t know who she is,” Brant said. “Her anonymity seems ridiculous, and it’s one of the things that led me to write this play.”
At a recent rehearsal, Bennett harmonized with Rajané Katurah Brown, a singing phenom who plays Marie, the protégé who became a gospel star in her own right. The two worked together this year in “The Wiz” at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis, where Brown understudied Paris Bennett as Dorothy. They sounded heavenly on such songs as “Above My Head,” “This Train” and “Rock Me.”
“Jamecia is such a powerhouse, and Rajané is fabulous,” said Sounds of Blackness leader Gary Hines, who is musical director for this show. “Together they blow you away.”
The women sing more than a dozen songs in the 135-minute show, which was developed at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and premiered in 2016 at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company. This will be its regional debut.
The show’s director, Frank Theatre founder Wendy Knox, helmed that first workshop in 2013.
“It’s a conundrum why Sister Rosetta isn’t better known,” Knox said. “She was a black woman, out of the box in a lot of ways, breaking rules and pursuing her passion. All of the things were stacked up against her, and she just wanted to play her music. There’s such amazing joy about her.”
It’s the joy that Bennett aims to capture.
“You can’t keep a woman like Sister Rosetta out of the light for long,” Bennett said. “If we were honest, she would be at the center of the rock ’n’ roll galaxy. She was just phenomenal.”
Perhaps folks will say similar things about this show.