Imagine in your mind Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze with the opening chords howling out of his Fender Stratocaster. Feel that rolling left hand or bass line in the music of Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis. They were all inspired by the icon that was and is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She made everything a praise song to inspire dancing and hip-swiveling—a beautiful mix of the corporeal and the holy. Marie and Rosetta at the Northlight Theatre, directed by E. Faye Butler, brings an icon to life on full blast.
Butler brings a wealth of experience from directing musicals of Black icons Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. She elicits deeply soulful performances of Black women fully blooming in a world where we are often portrayed as strong and long-suffering or angry. Playwright George Brant fleshed out two real-life icons that got their due after death. It is well-written with language that flows beautifully.
This play tells the story of when the partnership between Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight was formed. Tharpe heard Knight singing in a quartet and saw that her arch-rival “Saint” Mahalia Jackson has her eyes and ears on Marie. Tharpe’s competitiveness and rivalry are a comic motif. Jackson was always in a choir robe or a church mother-styled Sunday best outfit. She was always solemn and her singing style had a gravity to it but with a girdle on while Tharpe emphasized the movement that takes over the hips when the music is rocking. A girdle is not required and in my opinion, was the reason that women passed out in church when they got to shouting.
Tharpe started out like most gospel and soul singers—in the Black church. Bethany Thomas is magnificent as Tharpe. The moment she opened her mouth to sing, the vibe in the theater changed. Instantly, the house had an “amen corner” and Northlight became a Black church with calls of “go ahead,” and “take your time.” Thomas has a stage presence that draws the audience, who would not be able to look away if not for her co-star, the equally magnificent Alexis J. Roston.
Bethany Thomas. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
I first witnessed Roston in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Roston embodied the last days of an icon with a spot-on portrayal not just of a vulnerable and addicted Billie Holiday but also of her unique voice and style. Marie Knight’s voice was the polar opposite of Holiday’s. Her sweet “high church” contralto paired with Tharpe’s growling alto was lightning in a bottle. Roston’s voice and acting are star quality. She plays the sweet, sanctified, and proper girl who is married to a preacher. That has a whole weight of its own.
Preachers’ wives are expected to be a pinnacle of holiness and in the Church of God in Christ, that takes those expectations to a different level. Roston portrays that beatific first lady of the church perfectly. Knight had some difficulties with Tharpe’s idea of praise music, which was imbued with the blues. Her Rock Me in the Cradle of Our Love leans all the way to B.B. King’s Rock Me Baby. Roston’s reaction is hilarious and yet it comes across sincerely that Marie felt it was a sinful way to praise.
Thomas and Roston are perfectly paired with Marie and Rosetta. There is true chemistry between the two actors. Thomas gives the role of Tharpe a hard edge that comes from having to survive on the road in the era of Jim Crow. Black people traveling anywhere in that era relied on a network of Good Samaritans who gave them lodging, Sometimes, it’s a map hidden in a Bible like my Granny’s with the route traced in deep ink to avoid certain states altogether. Tharpe hired a White bus driver to be able to buy food from places she could not enter. That network was an extension of the Underground Railroad that carried over post-enslavement.
Their Good Samaritan owns a funeral home in Marie and Rosetta. The setting makes for some comic moments as well as poignant. The casket showroom is the rehearsal space and sleeping quarters. Rosetta lets Marie have the travel cot and says that she will bunk in a large casket. John Culbert’s scenic design is flawless. When I walked into the theater and saw the set, I immediately knew where and what it was. The caskets with the faux flower sprays, the velvet Last Supper tapestry, and the perfectly aged Mahalia Jackson fans were a spin in the wayback machine.
McKinley Johnson’s costume design is also flawless. Johnson has also done costumes for Black Ensemble Theater and brings that intricate glamor to Marie and Rosetta. Thomas is a vision in a shimmering gown that says diva on the stage. Roston is costumed in a beautifully tailored embossed pink dress. Both costumes are characters unto themselves and perfect for the era.
Bethany Thomas and Alexis J. Roston. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
As with almost any close relationship between women, there were rumors that Tharpe and Knight had a physical relationship. Tharpe played the guitar where she became one with the instrument, or in other parlance—like a man. Tharpe and Knight had a symbiotic relationship with their musical language completing each other like a married couple. Thomas’s Tharpe gives off a sexy vibe when she tells Marie how beautiful she is. There is sexual tension in the admiration of an artist seeing another work of art. Knight’s talent and beauty overwhelmed Tharpe to drive her to be a part of her musical act. It is a rare lead singer willing to share the lead without resentment. The same rumors followed her rival Mahalia Jackson and her pianist Mildred Falls.
I was emotionally involved and invested in Marie and Rosetta. I saw the exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, the year Tharpe was inducted. I have heard her recordings with Knight as well as both of them solo. Knowing the influence that Tharpe had on gospel, rock, and roll, and R&B made this play feel extra special. This was the acknowledgment that both of them deserve.
I highly recommend that you get some friends together to see Marie and Rosetta. The actors give impeccable performances that fill the soul. Marie and Rosetta is now playing at the Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. The show runs 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission; it’s been extended through August 13. Tickets and more information are available at www.northlight.org.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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