‘Marie and Rosetta’ Returns a Rock Legend to the Spotlight
If you’re not familiar with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, you’re not alone—but it’s time to catch up
Amaiya Holley and Noël Simoné Wippler in Marie and Rosetta, at Cygnet Theatre | Photo by Karli Cadel
Who first invented rock ’n’ roll? The simple default answer for decades was “Elvis.” But “Blue Suede Shoes” didn’t just appear in 1956 ex nihilo. Maybe if you knew a little music history, you’d credit black men like Chuck Berry or Little Richard for their electric guitar riffs and backbeat-heavy sound that first found crossover success with black and white audiences alike. But even 1955’s “Maybellene” and “Tutti Frutti” are unmistakable dispatches from the land of malt shops and poodle skirts—no one would mistake them for their precursor gospel or rhythm and blues records of the ’30s. Who’s the missing link who inspired them, who took the first transitional steps out of the choir toward a brand-new artform?
One answer is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A full twelve years before anybody checked into the Heartbreak Hotel, her upbeat single “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” a rendition of an African American spiritual, is not quite gospel, not quite rock, blending spiritual energy with secular swing into a revelation that Berry, Richard, Johnny Cash, and even Jimi Hendrix would someday call the favorite song of their youth. At her most popular, Tharpe filled stadiums and toured Europe, yet she lay in an unmarked grave until 2008 and was only inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.
From a 21st-century perspective, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of popular music’s strongest traditions, dominated for seemingly its whole history by white men, was pioneered by a bisexual black woman from Arkansas. As my college literature professor used to say, “History is written by the winners, but art is made by the losers, and is the better for it.” Those denied a voice in the existing power establishment find new ways to express themselves at the margins of it.
Noël Simoné Wippler’s voice fills the theater—it is no easy feat to replicate the thundering piano and primordial-rock quick picking from Tharpe’s records, but she’s an admirable cover
George Brant’s 2017 play Marie and Rosetta is a both an expansive introduction to this nearly-forgotten artist for the completely unfamiliar (like yours truly) and, in Cygnet Theatre’s production, a finely executed cover act that channels the same get-up-and-dance spirit Tharpe excelled at in her own time. Instead of the usual life-spanning biography format, the story is confined to just one evening: the first rehearsal Tharpe had with her protégée Marie Knight. You eventually realize that it’s an apocryphal framing: Though the setting is 1946, the duo play through Tharpe’s catalog into later years, and they’re staying the night in a funeral home for lack of other tour accommodation, a detail that’s not implausible but chiefly serves thematic purposes.
Triple (quadruple? quintuple?) threat Noël Simoné Wippler is endlessly engrossing on every front: Even before she plays a single note, she nails Sister Rosetta’s particular 1940s Southern accent, her bright smile and elegant showman’s body language—and then her voice fills the theater, adapting to the subtle variations in style as the show’s dozen-plus songs shift from olde-time religion to nightclub boogie-woogie and several shades in between. It is no easy feat to replicate the thundering piano and primordial-rock quick picking from Tharpe’s records, but Wippler is an admirable cover.
Tharpe is already a renowned singer when this story opens, so Knight’s entry point is as a besotted fan, plucked from a backing group and unsure that she deserves the equal billing Tharpe is so eager to train her into. Where Tharpe’s character remains relatively static, delivering biographical tidbits in conversation between songs, Knight is given an accelerated arc, which Amaiya Holley handles with great skill. For a while she’s a stand-in for the pearl-clutching church folk who can’t abide the moving of one’s hips while singing, but as the rehearsal goes on she and Tharpe find their happy medium, and the harmonies Wippler and Holley unleash—especially side by side at the piano for “Four Five Times” or for their most famous duet, “Up Above My Head”—are joyful enough to raise the dead. It’s surely no coincidence that the first time they sing together, the previously muted stage lights explode into a rainbow.
Tharpe and Knight’s eventual, brief romantic relationship was apparently an “open secret” at the time, at least according to fellow musicians speaking off the record to the former’s biographer. This play offers only occasional hints in that direction, preferring instead to explore how their stances on God, music, tradition, and their husbands influenced one another. By the end of the evening the two artists have gradually flipped from mentor and student to equals—it’s Tharpe who predicts they’ll soon be billed as “Marie and Rosetta,” not the other way around—and the final, unexpected role reversal that concludes the story is beyond touching. I can’t think of a more fitting way to acquaint yourself with a pivotal figure in music history—or simply to revel in some excellent covers of her music—than to come check out this brisk, one-act show.
Marie and Rosetta, directed by Rob Lutfy
at Cygnet Theatre till February 16
Tickets at cygnettheatre.com