By Daniel Skora
Record keeping was sketchy at best in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915. But Rosetta Rubin, or Rosether Adkins, or whatever her legal name might have been at birth, the woman who came to be known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe was destined to overcome the restrictions imposed by the cotton fields where her parents worked. It helped that her mother sang and had musical abilities, and that the church they went to encouraged religious expression through dance and the singing of gospel songs. When Rosetta discovered a guitar nestled comfortably in her hands at age four, a musical prodigy and an American roots music legend was born.
Detroit Public Theatre is presenting “Marie and Rosetta”, the story of the life and music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (here, nicely played by Carman Cooper in her professional acting debut). The “Marie” part of the title belongs to Marie Knight (Johnique Mitchell, every bit a fitting compliment to Cooper), whom Rosetta invited to join her on tour as a partner after hearing her sing. The two spent several years together traveling and cutting records, Rosetta the established star, Marie, who had to be encouraged to go beyond her gospel stylings with Rosetta’a admonition that “God don’t want the Devil to have all the good music, right?”
Playwright George Brant has set the entire action of his play in a Mississippi funeral parlor. Only Marie and Rosetta are present as they prepare for their first concert together. An upright piano and a table holding several guitar cases stand at one end of the parlor, an empty coffin at the other. Marie is applying makeup to Rosetta, who’s being a bit of a fussbudget worrying about how her makeup will look while discussing what she expects from Marie in terms of her vocals. What follows is an impromptu jam session where the two stake out their musical territories for the concert that will follow.
The emphasis is on gospel, with standards like “Peace in the Valley” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” But Sister Rosetta is often referred to as the Godmother of Rock ‘n Roll, influencing many who were to follow with her infusion of rhythm and blues and gospel. Artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley cited her work as influential, and her work on electric guitar was cited as important by the likes of Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. In recognition of her groundbreaking work, this year, 2018, Sister Rosetta will be inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence.
“Marie and Rosetta” is an often neglected piece of 20th century music history and Detroit Public’s production is a solidly entertaining piece of theatre. Running approximately 90 minutes without intermission, the show sometimes feels overly structured what with history, personalities, and dynamite vocals all vying to occupy center stage. But the heart and soul that Cooper and Mitchell put into their performances make this a don’t-wanna-miss show. Piano and guitar instrumentation are nicely channeled in from offstage musicians, and the two singers do an admiral job of pounding the keys and strumming the strings to make it look like they’re actually playing.
The seating in the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall for this production has banks of chairs on all four sides of the theatre overlooking the performance space in the middle. The arrangement is not only physically attractive but creates an environment where there’s not a bad seat in the house to be found.
“Marie and Rosetta” is directed by Courtney Burkett. Set and props design are by Pegi Marshall. Costume design is by Christianne Myers, lighting by Cecelia Durbin, and sound by Tim Franquist. Stage manager for the production is Stephanie Buck, assisted by Skylar Tarnas. The show runs through March 11th. Tickets are available online at www.detroitpublictheatre.org, by phone at 313.576.5111, or in person at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra box office. Performances of the Detroit Public Theatre take place at the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall inside the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center located at 3711 Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
For a look back at a few of the highlights from Sister Rosetta’s career, check out her guitar playing on “DIDN’T IT RAIN” and her bluesy vocals on “THIS TRAIN”, the song that opens up “Marie and Rosetta”.