Detroit Public brings story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Motown with rock, roll and tenderness
The history of rock and roll is replete with people who did not get credit or the money they deserved for the influence they had on artists and record companies who made the millions and billions. Lord knows, the list of people screwed over by people like Motown’s Berry Gordy and mega-hits producer Phil Spector is long and the stories legion.
Into this history of people with big shoes and big voices who have been forgotten by more people than remember them is the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe who as early as the mid and late 1930s was creating a sound that transitioned black gospel music to a beat and sound that would lead inevitably to people now immortalized in our minds–Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and so many more.
Tharpe was not only an inventive, innovative and pioneering songstress, but an influential guitarist as well, credited with being the first to experiment with heavy distortion on an electric guitar.
He story is played out in the current production of Marie and Rosetta, written by George Brant, at The Detroit Public Theatre. In this musical play, we see Rosetta’s life and influence through her relationship with and mentorship of Marie Knight, a young black gospel singer Tharpe discovered and added to her act in the 40s.
Carman Cooper, a Detroit native who has performed since she was 11, plays Rosetta in what is billed as her first “professional” role, having played in various community and non-pro productions, including having been a member of the Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit. I don’t know how old Ms. Cooper is, but she manages to perfectly convey Tharpe across the years without a single change of makeup of costume in the one-act play.
The structure of the play is purposely misleading from the start, but some members of the audience will have a pretty good guess from the beginning that what appears to be happening is not actually happening. That’s all I’ll say about that for fear of spoiling plot. Brant’s approach to telling Sister’s story is inventive and feels spot on by the end of the play. Cooper shows excellent physical range. And if she seemed just a little tight on night-2 of her professional debut, she can be forgiven because as she settles in to the part and story she can pretty much own this role with her excellent vocals and ability to convey the weight she feels on her shoulders as a black woman blazing trails and packing performance halls while having to eat baloney sandwiches on the road procured by her white bus driver from diners that won’t serve blacks.
The story, too, as the title suggests, is also very much about Marie Knight, played wonderfully by Johnique Mitchell, who had her own time in the spotlight with Tharpe in the 1940s, and then on her own in the 1950s. She was a force in gospel and soul music throughout the 50s and 60s, touring with artists like Book Benton and often reuniting with her friend Tharpe. Mitchell plays the emotionally scarred Knight with a delicate, soulful touch that also allows her to break out in moments of musical and social rebellion as the real Knight did. It’s a high-wire act for this talented young actress, but she never stumbles and does a splendid job of conveying Knight’s story without crowding Tharpe’s.
The story is dotted with songs and song fragments sung mostly by the two actresses together. The song selection stays, I think, intentionally to the gospel songs that are in the public domain. Neither actress plays the piano or guitar, but mimic doing so very well while off-stage musicians do the actual playing. This does not detract at all, though it would be compelling to see the show done by a couple of double-threat actresses who can play their own instruments. Brant’s script does a terrific job of showing the audience how gospel songs begat rock songs as the two women play around with beat and style on the keyboard.
Director Courtney Burkett does an excellent job of bringing the production together and fostering the on-stage chemistry between Cooper and Mitchell. The space is set up as a theater in the round, and so the audience is quite close and intimate with the performance.
This is an important play, because Tharpe’s and Knight’s story is very much worth knowing and preserving and celebrating in this story. If you are a fan of the Genesis of the rock and roll story, and the often un-billed or under appreciated influence of black artists, let alone that of a black women trying for appreciation and recognition in the Franklin Roosevelt years, then your knowledge is not complete without seeing this play.