“I brought a little church to the nightclub and a little nightclub to the church,” says musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe in “Marie and Rosetta,” in which she brings both church and nightclub to the theater.
Specifically, it’s Park Square Theatre, which is presenting the rousing play for two actors (plus Michael May and Natalia Peterson offstage, playing the piano and guitar licks the actors mime). We’re in a shabby funeral home in Mississippi, which, because it’s 1946, is the only place open to the legendary Tharpe for sleeping and rehearsing.
Her music would become a major influence on Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Lee Lewis, but she didn’t achieve their fame in her lifetime, so George Brant’s play uses the funeral home as the setting for her to show a protégée, Marie, how to give oomph to sacred music.
“Marie and Rosetta” is mostly a concert with a play around it and it works spectacularly as such. Anyone who has seen Jamecia Bennett, lead singer of Sounds of Blackness, in theatrical productions has probably had the sense that we’re only getting a part of her. She knocked ’em dead at the end of CTC’s “The Wiz” this year, for instance, but it was just a scene and then she was gone.
Here, the gloves are off and Bennett delivers a musical performance of raw, searing power. Her “Rock Me,” in particular, is a knockout that brings home exactly what Rosetta means by that church/nightclub comment. During it and other numbers, Bennett had Park Square’s audience heeding the preshow speech that urged, “If the spirit moves you, please feel free to make some noise.”
Bennett and Rajané Katurah Brown, as shy Marie, make lots of beautiful noise as their kindred spirits come together in “Marie and Rosetta,” especially in a series of duets that shift Marie toward the swingier side of the church-to-nightclub continuum. Her hips are a metronome, Rosetta says, urging, “Sing to the lord a new song. That’s what the good book says.”
Brant’s play makes good use of what are either actual Tharpe quotations or convincing replicas, and director Wendy Knox gives it both a motor and a beating — make that thumping — heart. She gets the gifted actors to commit so fully to Brant’s rehearsal-in-real-time conceit that they almost pull off a late switcheroo in which the play boldly, and not entirely successfully, shifts to the surreal.
“Marie and Rosetta” already has shown us how much the characters gave to the worlds of music and faith, so when Brant tacks on an overly emphatic list of their accomplishments, it feels like he didn’t trust his actors to make the case with their voices.
In this production, at least, he should have. After Bennett and Brown’s glorious instruments bring home a gospel number, Rosetta says, “Jesus is happy, and so am I.”
With all of the show’s incredible music, audiences are bound to join Rosetta’s Happy Club, too.