*Atlantic Theater Company’s presents the Off-Broadway production of “Marie and Rosetta,” a play with music starring Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis. It’s a story about Gospel music’s pioneers Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight.
Written by George Brant and directed by Neil Pepe, the play is set in Mississippi in 1946 in a funeral parlor during Rosetta and Marie’s first rehearsal and what later turned into a successful and record breaking three year musical collaboration, friendship and more.
Both Tharpe and Knight were considered Gospel’s music most revered duo. Although Marie and Rosetta is centered around their one night musical encounter, Tharpe was considered Gospel music’s original crossover artist with several blues and pop recordings in the 1930s. During that decade, she performed with Cab Calloway and his big band at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club. In the 1930s, she recorded race records and was labeled and ostracized by the church for singing and playing the “devil’s music.”
A child prodigy, Tharpe learned to play the guitar at six years old. During that time, Tharpe’s mother, Katie Bell Nubin, also known as “Mother Bell,” played the mandolin and was a highly sought after musician known throughout the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination. Young Tharpe was known as “Little Rosetta Nubin, the singing and guitar-playing miracle.” In the 1920s, it was rare for women to play mandolins and guitars. The mother and daughter duo toured on the tent revival circuit with P.W. McGhee in the Southeastern states. In 1949, an adult Tharpe and her mother reunited and recorded “Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do” on Decca Records.
Tharpe and Knight also recorded their biggest hits on Decca Records including “Up Above My Head,” “Precious Memories,” “Beams of Heaven,” “Gospel Train,” “Didn’t It Rain,” and numerous others. The pair toured and performed in secular venues and arena-sized football stadiums. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was greatly admired and respected and influenced generations of rock’s music legends including Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix.
In this edition of Inside Broadway, Gwendolyn Quinn talks with Kecia Lewis about her role as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, her 30 plus years on Broadway and working in television and film. Marie and Rosetta has been extended through October 16th at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater.
Inside Broadway: Prior to landing the role of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, how did you prepare for this role? Were you previously a fan of Rosetta Tharpe
Kecia Lewis: I had actually been approached two years ago by a director and writer friend who said that he had acquired the rights to Sister Rosetta’s story and he thought that I would be perfect to play her. He asked me did I know who she was. I knew her name in passing because my mother listened to her music and I heard her name in my house. But I didn’t necessarily know who she was and exactly what she did. So when my friend approached me about his play, that got me to read and research her on YouTube. So I was very familiar with who she was when this came along earlier this year.
IB: So how did you get involved with this production at the Atlantic Theater Company?
KL: My agent called me and his first response was, “Do you play guitar?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well this project came in, and they’re interested in you, but the person has to play guitar.” So they came up with another concept to get around that. But I did take guitar lessons so I could make sure that I looked believable at least. I did a little bit of work with the electric guitar, but my lessons were mostly on the acoustic guitar. I took lessons for about a month. My plan is to go back and actually learn how to play. My guitar teacher said that I have a natural affinity for it, so if I really wanted to learn it I could and I think I do.
IB: What was the most challenging aspect of this role and why?
KL: The most challenging aspect for me was learning all the material. I’m sure you noticed that I talk three times as much as Rebecca, who’s playing Marie Knight. So I have a lot to say. And Rosetta speaks in a very specific vernacular, which is not mine. So it was learning how to speak the way that she would speak. Also, the writer George Brant has a very musical ear. He calls himself a frustrated musician. So when he writes it’s almost like Shakespeare, there’s a very specific rhythm and sound and musicality to the speaking. So the challenge was not only learning the lines, but learning the vernacular and learning the rhythm that George wanted to hear coming out of Rosetta’s mouth.
I read as much as I could on her. There’s a wonderful biography titled, Shout Sister Shout. I have a copy of the book on my phone so I read the book over again and I looked at every video and YouTube clip. Everything I could find on her to listen to her, and to try to understand how she played, when she played. What kind of musician she was.
IB: As an artist, what do you most admire about Rosetta Tharpe? What did you learn about her that people may not know?
KL: The primary thing I appreciate the most about her that I learned in my research is that she was very adamant and did not want to be considered a good musician for a girl. She wanted to be considered a great musician. She was very conscientious about being the best that she could be at all times and surrounding herself with people she wanted to be in duets with. It was almost as if she kept looking for partners. She didn’t trust that by herself, so she was constantly pairing up with people, male and female, trying to find that perfect duo. And of course she and Marie only lasted as a duo for three years, but they continued to perform together throughout the rest of Rosetta’s life. Rosetta died in 1973. I think that’s what I love the most about her and admire is that she really wanted to be a great musician and she surrounded herself with people who were also great musicians. And I think that’s something people wouldn’t know about her. The primary thing you learned from the play was that she was an incredible guitarist. And what’s most interesting to me is how people on the rock side of music knew exactly who she was and they give her props because rock musicians have been very vocal over the years about their appreciation for her. They studied her and they copied her, and Chuck Berry almost note for note, lick for lick, playing Rosetta’s riffs.
It’s also interesting to me that the rock folk don’t, or they don’t have an appreciation of the Gospel side. And the gospel people have almost no idea who she was because she was eclipsed by Mahalia Jackson. When Mahalia came along, that was the end of Rosetta’s star. She had a resurgence and she was always on the periphery, but she did not continue in the vein or the role that she on as a million-selling gospel star. But she was the first one, so it’s always interesting to me that gospel people, they knew her name, but they don’t know exactly who she was and rock people knew her for the guitar, but they were like, “Oh she sang gospel?”
IB: There were several undertones in the play that Rosetta and Maria had a romantic affair?
Yes. Marie Knight always denied it. She said that they never had a relationship as lovers. Rosetta never denied it or acknowledged it. Most of the people who were in their circle and knew them both personally said that they were a couple. And some have speculated that when Marie’s mother and children died in that fire, when the two of them were on the road, that Marie took that as some type of punishment. She thought maybe God was punishing her and that’s what ultimately broke them up. She felt like she had done this to herself and she needed to disengage from Rosetta. They remained friends and continued to perform together, just never as a duo.
IB: As you know, Rosetta had a long history, why do you think the writer focused on that one specific day of Rosetta’s life?
KL: That would actually be a great question for the writer George Brant. But I think I’ve heard him answer it this way. He said that as he was doing his research on Rosetta, he was flabbergasted that he had never heard of her and that most people had no idea who she was. And so the more research he did, he became fascinated with the two of them as a duo. To our knowledge, we actually tried to find out more when we were in rehearsal, if they were the first gospel duo. I don’t think there was anybody before them. So they were like the Mary Mary of the 40s (laughs). He said that he wanted to focus on the two of them as a duo. He also said that when he started writing, Marie was still alive. Marie Knight didn’t die until 2009. So she was still alive and because she was so adamant that they were not lovers, he wanted to honor her, he wanted to honor what she had said about the two of them. He also wanted to acknowledge it in some way. So he thought that if he focused on their first meeting, the first time that they rehearsed together because they actually did meet in New York. And Rosetta did see her in a group singing with an opening act for Mahalia. So he took those facts and then imagined what their first rehearsal might have been like. And also he wanted to introduce the idea that maybe they loved each other in a way that was more romantic as well as their love for each other as artists.
IB: You and Rebecca Naomi Jones (Marie Knight) had great chemistry on stage. Is this your first time working with her. Tell us about your experience Rebecca Naomi Jones?
KL: Actually this is our first time working together. Rebecca and I have known each other for a while. We did a benefit together four years ago and neither one of us can remember where it was or what it was for. It was like a one day gig. So we had to rehearse that day and then we had dinner together with the other singers that were there and we got to know each other a little bit, and clicked right away. And we exchanged numbers and have remained friends on social media.
I’ve gone to see her in shows, she’s come to see me in shows. But we had never worked together until now. Working with her has been really great. Everybody talks about the chemistry that we have and I think it’s because she and I have joked about it that we’re the same person in different bodies. We will dress alike and look at each other and start laughing when we get to work. It’s like, “Really?” And we didn’t consult each other. It’s just weird. I guess it’s translating on stage, which is great.
IB: What’s your favorite Sister Rosetta Tharpe song and why?
KL: She had so many and the writer was very conscientious about picking songs for the play that fit the play as opposed to all of Rosetta’s hits. I have to say my favorite from her and Marie was “Didn’t It Rain?” I like the power that she displays in the song vocally. I love how she does that gospel thing where she’ll just hang on one thing and just beat it, until you get it. When she says, “Rain, rain, rain, rain.” I mean the intensity that she just kept building in the recording, I love that our musical director [Jason Michael Webb] and I joked a lot as I was trying to learn her ad-lib between Marie singing. There’s no rhyme or reason to these ad-libs she does and usually when someone writes a song or they record a song there’s kind of a progression in some way. And it is really obvious to me that she just got in the studio and just went in.
IB: Are you a big fan of gospel music? Who are some of your favorite artists?
KL: I am a big fan of gospel music. I actually recorded two gospel CDs independently [Someone’s Got to Say It and WWW, which stands for Word, Worship and Warfare]. I love gospel music, it is my favorite genre. I listen to everything, but gospel is my favorite and I listen to it all the time. My favorite artists right now are Fred Hammond and Mary Mary. I’m going through the Hamilton [musical] stage like a lot of people right now. That’s what I listen to probably more than anything is the Hamilton cast album.
IB: Do you feel there are more opportunities for African American actresses on television or theater? And why?
KL: I think it’s very in to be a black woman. I call it being the flavor of the month. There are more opportunities in film, television and theater arts, actually all three, but mostly theater. I also think the opportunities are coming because more and more people are getting on the bandwagon of not necessarily doing traditional casting. Doing what’s called nontraditional casting. In television what that looks like is a show on Netflix called “Master of None” and there was a role written for a male best friend and a woman walked in, a black woman who happens to be a lesbian and they were so enthralled with her and getting to know her they thought, “Well we’ll just change this so his best friend will be a black woman who just happens to be a lesbian. Those kinds of things are happening more and more. I did the national tour of Cinderella, I played the Fairy Godmother. I was shocked that I got the audition and that I was hired.
IB: What has been your favorite role you’ve play in theater and why?
My favorite role was Effie White in “Dreamgirls.” I was the last and the youngest Effie that Michael Bennett chose. I did that in 1984 and 1985. I did it again in 2000 and I won the Ovation Award, which is kind like winning a Los Angeles Tony Award.
I love that role. And this role has actually been a rival to Effie because the main thing I love about Effie and also what I love about this role is that generally when material is written for black women, we tend to be one note, maybe two. We either play an angry black woman or we play the mamma. And there’s a little bit of that here, but I love a role when you see a whole person, when you see a complex person and a person who’s struggling with something and a person who’s trying to overcome something. And too often material is not written for us in that way.
IB: What’s your favorite theater production and why?
KL: Right now, I love the Color Purple. I love this version of the Color Purple. I’ve seen it three times. I saw the last one at least five times because I had friends in it.
IB: What’s next for you?
KL: I am auditioning like every other actress. My goal is to land a regular series on television. I would like to work in that medium. I’ve done lots of guest star roles. I was on Blue Bloods and Limitless recently. I just enjoy that medium. As far as theater is concerned, I have agreed to do a one woman show in Portland, Oregon, but haven’t yet signed on completely. It’s on the life of Ethel Waters. I’ve also been offered something here in New York. So we’re figuring it out and negotiating, and I’m not sure which one of those I’m going to do.
For more information on Marie and Rosetta, please visit: https://atlantictheater.org/.
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media specialist with a career spanning over 25 years. She is the founder of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the publisher of Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway with Gwendolyn Quinn” and “My Person of the Week” are published with EURWEB.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business. Contact her at [email protected].