Cleveland, Ohio — “We got to be invisible,” said Rosetta in Cleveland Play House’s “Marie and Rosetta.” “We step offstage and we got to disappear.”
Rosetta is referring to herself being an African American woman trying to obtain stardom in Jim Crow-era America. This piece of dialogue from the show gives a glimpse of what “Marie and Rosetta” could have been: a show that highlights Sister Rosetta Tharpes incredible musical career while offering important social commentary regarding her difficult path.
Although the show certainly pays homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s successful gospel singing, the grittier details of Tharpes life are understated and underrepresented. As a bio-drama with music, George Brant’s 2016 “Marie and Rosetta” focuses too much on the music and not enough on the bio-drama.
Performed in the Allen Theatre without an intermission, the show takes place in 1946 in a Mississippi funeral home. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is preparing for a concert with her new-found talent and soon-to-be collaborator, the gospel singer Marie Knight. After meeting only earlier that day, the two explore each other’s personalities and vocal styles, performing a 14-song concert for the “ghosts” and caskets that surround them.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe found fame as the first great recording artist of gospel music while developing a guitar playing technique and hearty voice that influenced countless artists. As the pioneer of pop-gospel, Tharpe was coined the “Godmother of Rock and Roll” and the “Original Soul Sister,” receiving a place in the “Blues Hall of Fame” and “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” only last year.
As Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Miche Braden’s voice lives up to her real-life character’s “Original Soul Sister” title. Her voice is boisterous, rich and commanding. Chaz Hodges as Marie Knight has a sweeter tone that is especially adept at hitting the high notes.
Their voices blend beautifully in the many songs of the show, a few of which are “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “Four or Five Times,” “This Train” and “Sit Down.” Although the songs are unmistakably gospel sounding, the clapping, snapping, toe-tapping signature of gospel music is missing in this production. Perhaps this is due to the lack of a large band signature of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, or maybe it’s the actress’ inability to play instruments.
It’s a lot to ask of an actress to sing, look and behave as a music icon. It’s even more to ask that she be able to play the instrument her character spent all her life perfecting. However, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the actress mimic playing that instrument convincingly. This is especially important for Braden to execute well, considering Tharpe is best-known for her guitar playing that influenced legends Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, among others. Under the musical direction of Seth Farber, KJ Denhert and Katreese Barnes provide perfectly proficient guitar and piano, respectively, for the actresses from backstage. Even with beautiful music being provided by expert musicians, it is blaringly obvious that Braden cannot play the guitar.
In the disappointingly few songs featuring the instrument, Braden stands in profile to the audience in an attempt to hide her inability to play. This position removes the audience from the action, especially when the movement during songs is limited to Hodges pretending to play the piano while Braden paces back and forth.
Director Neil Pepe has staged the entire production rather simply — the only action being when Marie and Rosetta inconsequently reorganize clothing draped about the semi-circle of coffins in Riccardo Hernandez’s set design. The lighting design by Christopher Akerlind is also simple, casting the backdrop in cool shades of tans, purples and blues throughout the show. Costume designer Dede Ayite’s sparkling blue number for Rosetta is the most eye-catching element on stage while Marie is justifiably understated in pale yellow. All of the creative team, including sound designer Steve Kennedy, were part of the show’s original off-Broadway debut.
The inconsequential movement on stage and simple production design means there is little to entertain the eye while the characters engage in their many songs. This also places more emphasis the character’s dialogue and relationships.
Fortunately, Braden and Hodges are authentic as their given characters, crafting a believability that is refreshing. Braden’s Rosetta is a down-to-earth, god-praising force while Hodges plays Marie with a personality that is wonderfully innocent and virtuous. Unashamed of how she puts a little more swing of the hips into her gospel music, Rosetta clashes slightly with the more conservative Marie, who prefers to sing songs by the hymnal. The two find their balance as the show progresses, each woman growing more comfortable with the other and each song sounding more polished than the last.
As Rosetta teaches Marie to loosen her vibrato, between songs she coaches her on the ways of life with a typical grandmother-like, experience-trumps-youth mentality. In Brant’s script, Rosetta lightly touches on the more difficult aspects of her life — the key word here being lightly. The wisps of dialogue that take place between scenes are too few and far between.
Not only did Tharpe prepare for shows in a Mississippi funeral home, but by the grace of the funeral home’s director, she would sleep in the satin-lined coffins as well. The caskets were a welcome accommodation for Tharpe and her band, who often found far less appealing lodging while touring southern states.
She employed a white bus driver so that — not if, but when — the band was pulled over by the cops they had a white man in their entourage. Tharpe suffered abuse in her marriage, rationalizing the beatings by thinking they were the price one paid to be a woman in the spotlight.
We learn these incredible details in those small moments between uplifting gospel songs — moments that deserve much more attention than they receive. With the “Black Lives Matter” and “Me Too” movements, Tharpe’s story is incredibly relevant to present day. How wonderful and inspiring it would have been to learn more about how Tharpe addressed adversity in more than just the few minutes the show devotes to this topic.
Instead, the majority of the dialogue, while well written, focuses on the blending of Marie’s traditional gospel and the suggestive style of Rosetta. In a fashion that is reminiscent of the written information presented at the end of a “based on a true story” film, it is only at the end of the show that Marie and Rosetta’s careers are given major attention.
“Marie and Rosetta” offers a night of agreeable gospel music that acts as a nice tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight — if only the show would have turned down the amplifier and tuned into more social commentary.
WHERE: Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Feb. 11
Featured image caption: From left to right: Chaz Hodges (Marie Knight) and Miche Braden (Sister Rosetta Tharpe). Photo Credit: Roger Mastroianni