Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll: T2 raises the roof with story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll: T2 raises the roof with story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe
LARA JO HIGHTOWER/Special to the Free Weekly

Famed rocker Chuck Berry said that his whole career was “one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe imitation.”

Arkansas-born Tharpe, the most famous gospel singer of her day and largely considered the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, may be the most influential artist you’ve never heard of. But with TheatreSquared’s production of George Brant’s “Marie and Rosetta” opening this week, director Steve H. Broadnax III and actors Miche Braden and Johnique Mitchell hope to change that.

“It’s American history to bury Black history, and it’s important that this show kind of revives the Godmother of Music,” says Mitchell, who plays Tharpe’s duet partner, Marie Knight. Mitchell is a Texas native with a robust theater resume who has studied with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, and at The Globe in London. This is the third time she’s performed this role. “Today, rock ‘n’ roll feels like a white man’s industry. And it’s not; it didn’t start that way. It wasn’t birthed from white men. So I think this is a beautiful way to give the coins, give the receipts, back to who it all belongs to.”

“People learn history by watching entertainment — they get the story, they’ll see where she came from,” says Braden, who is portraying Sister Rosetta Tharpe on stage for the third time. “And that’s so important, especially, knowing what influences your creativity, with the music that she did.”

Braden has a special talent for bringing musical icons alive on stage: she received rave reviews for her portrayal of Bessie Smith in “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith,” a role she originated and has been performing since 2000.

“[Tharpe] knew music was all God,” says Braden. “Music is creativity at its best, so that just really kept me going, because that’s what I used to be — a minister of music and church. I would always bring popular songs in to the church, change the words around for the choir, and people related to it, because they heard something familiar. But it had a message.”

With “Marie and Rosetta,” playwright Brant imagines a fly-on-the-wall view of what the first rehearsal between the gospel legend Tharpe and her protege, Knight, might have been like. Through intimate conversation and rollicking musical performances, the new duet partners form a loving bond that would last far beyond the five years they toured together. When Tharpe died in 1973 at the age of 58, Knight was there to do her hair and makeup prior to burial.

Pull up a video of Tharpe performing on YouTube, and it’s immediately obvious what earned her the title of Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Standing in front of gospel choirs in her stylish-but-modest dresses, the charismatic performer with the big voice and joyful stage presence absolutely shreds on her electric guitar, delivering a white-hot, rocking performance that straddles the worlds of gospel, rock and rhythm and blues. That duality — the ability to thrill both devoted churchgoers and hard-partying revelers at venues like The Cotton Club and The Apollo, where Tharpe would perform to adoring crowds with legends like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie — raised eyebrows and garnered criticism from the more pious of her religious fans. But Tharpe never let it stop her: “I’m gonna find more sinners in a nightclub than she ever gonna find in a church,” she says of Mahalia Jackson in Brant’s play.

“I think this play challenges what it looks like to be a child of God,” says Broadnax. “I look at how [Tharpe] talks about, ‘How do you behave? What is the performance, what does it look like?’ Often we see this angelic, pure life, nothing wrong, right? But, even biblically, it doesn’t even claim we can do that, do you know what I mean? She invited humanity. She invited joy. She invited intimacy. … That too was God. She was every woman.”

Given her vast accomplishments, it’s unconscionable that she’s not as much a household name as early rock influences like Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis, both of whom were great admirers. “Say, man, there’s a woman who can sing some rock ‘n’ roll,” Lewis said of Tharpe, and Bob Dylan called Tharpe “anything but ordinary and plain. She was a big, good-lookin’ woman and divine, not to mention sublime and splendid.” Johnny Cash referenced her influence in his speech at his 1992 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, Tharpe — whose career started two decades before Cash’s — was not inducted into the Hall of Fame until 2018, and, like so many other talented Black artists, without whom American popular music would not exist, the extent of her influence is largely missing from common knowledge. When she died, she was buried in a grave that went unmarked for three decades.

Broadnax, who directed a production of the play at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre with the same cast this summer — and assistant directed another production before that — says no matter how many times he revisits the material, Tharpe and Knight’s story continues to inspire him.

“I love these women, and I love this play — it is my favorite play,” he says. “Because of the spiritual component. It’s so moving. As many times as I’ve worked on this production, I still sit in a room and, as we work, I get moved. I get spiritually enhanced, taught, every time, reviewing the scripture she says. We often, in rehearsal, talk about spirit and scripture and spirituality and emotion. It’s just so personal to me, this play. I love it. It’s an honor any time I get to be around this cast and this work.”

One of the inspirational things about performing the show in Little Rock — around an hour away from Cotton Plant, Ark., where Tharpe was born — was meeting theatergoers that hailed from that same small town, says Broadnax.

“There were quite a few people that came and grabbed us and said, ‘Hey, I’m from Cotton Plant,’” he says. “It was so beautiful to see, because I believe you don’t know who you are until you see your reflection, and to come from a place like Cotton Plant, Arkansas, that’s not very talked about, and see your reflection, your humanity and your value and worth projected through these women is wonderful. And so they embraced it and enjoyed it. That was beautiful to experience.”

Over the years, there have been signs the world is starting to acknowledge Tharpe’s enormous contributions to American popular music. In addition to her induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the United States Post Office issued a memorial stamp in 1989, a comprehensive biography of her was written in 2007 and several documentaries have established Tharpe’s bonafides as one of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll. In 2009, a benefit concert raised the funds to finally purchase a proper headstone to mark the spot in a cemetery in Philadelphia where Tharpe is laid to rest. Lifelong friend Roxie Moore wrote the epitaph. It reads, “She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”



‘Marie and Rosetta’

WHEN — 7:30 Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Nov. 17-Dec. 12

WHERE — TheatreSquared, 477 W. Spring St., Fayetteville

COST — $10-$54

INFO — 777-7477

Covid-19 Precautions: Face coverings are required. While our region continues to experience what the CDC defines as a significant or high rate of community transmission, TheatreSquared is requiring patrons to wear a face covering while in the theater, regardless of vaccination status.

Do not attend a performance or come to one of the performance venues if you are experiencing COVID symptoms.

Categories: Theater