Mu­sic of gospel singers cel­e­brated in Cleve­land Play House’s ‘Marie and Rosetta’

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - Spotlight - By John Benson » en­ter­tain­ment@news-her­ald.com

When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last month an­nounced its 2018 list of in­ductees, most folks had the same re­ac­tion of con­fu­sion when see­ing the name Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe, who is known as the “God­mother of Rock ’n’ Roll.” ¶ In fact, that was Neil Pepe’s re­sponse more than a year ear­lier when he re­ceived Ge­orge Brant’s new play “Marie and Rosetta.” ¶“I’ve al­ways been a huge fan of gospel and blues mu­sic,” Pepe said. “When Ge­orge sent me this play, I was not only amazed by the story, but also struck by the fact that I never ac­tu­ally heard of her or her mu­sic. Af­ter read­ing the play, I was really struck by the story.

“Then I went to YouTube and started watch­ing all of the videos of Rosetta’s work in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. I was kind of amazed this sort of un­sung hero not only of gospel mu­sic and rock ’n’ roll, but es­pe­cially be­cause she was this sem­i­nal gui­tarist player.”

Pepe di­rected the 2016 world premiere of “Marie and Rosetta” at the At­lantic Theater Com­pany in New York City. Now he’s trav­el­ing with the musical to North­east Ohio for Cleve­land Play House’s pro­duc­tion of “Marie and Rosetta,” which runs Jan. 20 through Feb. 11 at Play­house Square’s Allen The­atre.

Pepe said they’re ba­si­cally re­viv­ing the same pro­duc­tion with two new ac­tresses: Miche Braden and Chaz Hodges. The former, who por­trays Tharpe, played the role of Bessie Smith in the Cleve­land Play House pro­duc­tion of “The Devil’s Mu­sic,” while the lat­ter ac­tu­ally helped cre­ate the role of Tharpe’s friend and coun­ter­part Marie Knight in two early de­vel­op­men­tal work­shops.

There is an in­her­ent dan­ger when pro­duc­ing a bio­drama or juke­box musical where the tunes over­shadow the nar­ra­tive. Pepe said Brant suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated those wa­ters for what amounts to a beau­ti­ful story about friend­ship in the harsh­est of con­di­tions. While the mu­sic in­dus­try is a cut­throat busi­ness, both Tharpe and Knight also had to deal with sex­ism and racism.

“Marie and Rosetta got to­gether in the late ’40s and started tour­ing as a duo,” Pepe said. “So it’s a play cen­tered around their re­hearsals for the first gig they did in Mis­sis­sippi.

“It’s really about two women get­ting to know each other, but it’s also about two women sort of help­ing each other at var­i­ous times in their lives both mu­si­cally and spir­i­tu­ally. It’s really about just a sense of sur­vival be­ing two ex­tra­or­di­nary black women in the ’40s and try­ing to es­tab­lish them­selves on their own terms as women in the mu­sic busi­ness.”

The tim­ing couldn’t be bet­ter for the Cleve­land Play House’s pro­duc­tion of “Marie and Rosetta” with the Rock Hall’s in­duc­tion of Tharpe.

“It’s really awe­some,” Pepe said. “There have been many peo­ple for many years who have been cam­paign­ing on the be­half of Sis­ter Rosetta to get her into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and there’s no ques­tion she de­serves to be there, just in terms of who she in­flu­enced — Jimi Hen­drix, Robert Plant. If you lis­ten to a lot of Chuck Berry’s great licks from the ’50s, and then you lis­ten to Rosetta’s great licks from the ’30s and ’40s, you re­al­ize there’s just a huge amount of in­flu­ence.

“It’s an ex­cit­ing thing that she’s be­ing in­ducted. We like to think we had some small part in help­ing out with that, but we’re just thrilled to be do­ing this show at a time she’s be­ing cel­e­brated.”


Chaz Hodges, left, por­trays Marie Knight, and Miche Braden is Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe in “Marie and Rosetta,” a Cleve­land Play House pro­duc­tion start­ing a run Jan. 20 at the Allen The­atre at Play­house Square.

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