Review: Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage presents ‘Marie and Rosetta’

George Brant’s musical play about singers Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight is enjoying a spine-tingling production.


Originally published on Dallas Morning News

Students of American popular music know Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel singer and guitar player who influenced rock stars like Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix. Marie Knight, with whom Tharpe toured as a duo starting in 1946, is less familiar. Marie and Rosetta closes that gap.

George Brant’s musical play about their first rehearsal is enjoying a spine-tingling production at Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth. Longtime Dallas actor and singer Denise Lee portrays Tharpe, with four-time American Idol contestant Denise Jackson as Knight. Together they create a palpable chemistry even when they’re not laying into Tharpe’s impressive oeuvre.

And when they do, look out. Over the course of the play, they perform more than half a dozen Tharpe standards, including “This Train,” “Rock Me,” “Can’t Sit Down,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” and “Up Above My Head,” which the audience sees them write together.

Backing themselves, they take turns jubilantly thumping the piano, with Lee also wielding a guitar, though its sound actually comes from musician Darrin Kobetich behind a curtain. Both Lee and Jackson have powerful voices, with Jackson displaying incredible range.

At first, Knight comes off as shy and nervous. But as the looser, joking Tharpe draws her out, the audience learns Knight is not as young and innocent as she wants the world to believe. This tension between their personalities and the evolution of their relationship is the major theme of Marie and Rosetta, along with the statement it makes about the characters’ talent that Lee and Jackson bring to life.

Early on, the play establishes Tharpe’s place in the firmament. She’s already a star, equally at home in churches and nightclubs. But the more pious singer Mahalia Jackson — who’s invoked so often she’s a third unseen character — is snapping at her heels.

Looking to change things up, Tharpe has recruited Knight after being impressed by her performance as part of a singing group opening for Jackson.

Even before the actors took the stage at Sunday’s matinee, Marie and Rosetta signaled part of what the pair will face with its setting: A funeral home showroom holding a couple of coffins along with a piano, guitar, amp and suitcases, handsomely designed by Curtis C. Trout.

This is where they’re staying in Mississippi on the eve of the launch of their tour. Black performers on the road in the South at this time were generally not welcome in hotels. These are the kinds of realities that give Marie and Rosetta its historical context and a way for the characters to bond. The no-good men in their lives are another.

But Marie and Rosetta never descends into cliche, thanks to Brant’s delicately detailed writing, Lee and Jackson’s down-to-earth performances and Egla Birmingham Hassan’s sure-handed direction.

That would have been enough. But the playwright adds a supernatural twist near the end that helps the characters and the audience peek into the future, creating even more satisfaction on both sides of the fourth wall.