“God don’t want the Devil to have all the good music, right?” asks gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis) to Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a young woman she is grooming to join her act. It’s a rhetorical question: Rosetta holds herself with the confidence of someone who knows exactly what God wants, even if He may not know it Himself. In 1946, she’s a musical pioneer woman, infusing church music with R&B and the early loin stirrings of rock & roll. “Your joy…has hips in it,” notes Marie, who is used to a goodier-two-shoes approach. But Rosetta wants her to put more boogie into her piano playing. As she puts it: “It’s hip or the highway.”
Marie and Rosetta is set at a funeral home in the Deep South, where the two women will be sleeping in caskets that night, hotels being off limits to African-Americans. George Brant’s drama, unsentimentally directed by the Atlantic’s Neil Pepe, is peppered with that kind of evocative detail, and it incorporates its biographical material gracefully. (There’s a wonderful story about catching white people’s pennies in a hat.) But although Rosetta’s incipient mentorship of Marie is capably rendered—including its overtones of seduction—the story takes a back seat to stirring renditions of songs including “This Train” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Lewis and Jones sing superbly, supported by two excellent unseen musicians: Deah Harriott on piano and Felicia Collins on guitar. As the play goes on, the dialogue starts to seem more and more like segues between musical numbers, but it’s hard to complain. You don’t have to be religious to know when you’re in the presence of glory.
Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By George Brant. Directed by Neil Pepe. With Kecia Lewis, Rebecca Naomi Jones. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission. Through Oct 2. Click here for full venue and ticket information.
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