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