Is that a corpse being made up for burial? Or a fiery diva getting set to perform? That’s our question at the onset of “Marie and Rosetta,” a brash and swaggering new play with music from the Atlantic.
The confusion can be forgiven: the setting is a casket-lined funeral parlor, where a young woman is applying blush to a more senior, and perfectly still, counterpart, bathed in a pale light. Soon, though, the older woman stirs to life.
Gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her new discovery, Marie Knight, have merely borrowed a friend’s funeral business to use as a rehearsal studio and makeshift “hotel.” The surroundings give Marie the creeps, but as Sister Tharpe pipes up … sleeping in a coffin is safer than sleeping on a tour bus for two black women in 1946 Mississippi.
A world premiere by George Brant, "Marie and Rosetta" imagines Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s first rehearsal with a protégée, as they prepare for a tour that will establish them as a successful team. Tharpe was the so-called queen of “race records” in the 1930s and ’40s, a woman at ease performing in churches or the Cotton Club, often the same day.
She both helped push gospel music into the mainstream and won admirers as eclectic as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix.
Playwright Brant, whose recent works include “Grounded,” with Anne Hathaway at the Public, has crafted a 90-minute historical drama chronicling the grand tragedies and triumphs of the lives of both women. The story is punctuated by a dozen or so of Tharpe’s better-known recordings, including “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”
Stage vet Kecia Lewis, who earlier this year was excellent as a last-minute addition to the Classic Stage Co.’s “Mother Courage …,” is wised-up, earthy and soulful as the flamboyant performer who has both a matronly concern for her new charge and something of a sensual draw to her, as well.
Rebecca Naomi Jones (“Hedwig,” “American Idiot”), as Marie, is initially timid, but Sister Rosetta draws her out, helping her walk a line between faith and seductiveness. Sister Rosetta doesn’t just persuade Marie to adopt her way of thinking; she helps the woman, 23, find her own voice.
Clever stagecraft makes it appear the two women are in full command of the piano and guitars at the tips of their fingers, though it becomes apparent they've got support behind the scenes.
Riccardo Hernández’s setting serves as an imposing backdrop for the head-spinning details of the duo’s lives: Sister Rosetta was once such a popular figure she drew 25,000 paying customers to her third wedding, held in Washington, D.C. Yet for years after her 1973 death, she was buried in an unmarked Philadelphia grave.
This funeral parlor, it turns out, suggests the paradoxes of the duo’s lives: The fine wood, and satin and brass fittings of the coffins speak to the wealth their star power earns -- but the back-room location could just as well be a metaphor for the way they were still expected to be invisible, like servants.
“Marie and Rosetta,” through Oct. 2 at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St. Tickets: $65-$75. Call 866-811-4111.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn