Review: True Colors Theatre’s ‘Marie and Rosetta’ resounds, mostly

The True Colors Theatre production of "Marie and Rosetta," co-starring Jasmine Renee Ellis (left) and Amitria Fanae, continues through Dec. 30 at the Southwest Arts Center.
Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

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The True Colors Theatre production of "Marie and Rosetta," co-starring Jasmine Renee Ellis (left) and Amitria Fanae, continues through Dec. 30 at the Southwest Arts Center. Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

For 80 or so pulsating minutes, director Andrea Frye’s True Colors Theatre production of “Marie and Rosetta,” is a pure pleasure. Written by George Brant, the play is about the origins of the real-life professional collaboration between influential gospel musician/composer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and singer Marie Knight. In roughly a dozen songs — tremendously vocalized by co-stars Amitria Fanae (as Rosetta) and Jasmine Renee Ellis (as Marie), accompanied by music director S. Renee Clark (on keyboard) and Spencer Bean (on guitar) — the show scintillates and soars.

The setting is 1946 Mississippi, where, due to the Jim Crow laws of the era, a funeral home serves as both a rehearsal hall and hotel for the two Black women, as they prepare to appear at a tobacco warehouse and makeshift nightclub on the outskirts of an unnamed town. Marie is the former member of a singing quartet, whom Rosetta has enlisted right out from under her more popular musical rival, Mahalia Jackson. (Fanae’s fleeting impression of Jackson is utterly priceless.)

We eventually learn that Marie is a preacher’s wife with two small children, and the script also vaguely alludes to Rosetta’s lesbian leanings. But the play principally charts the development of the genuine music they make together, and their differing attitudes about the work: Rosetta thinks Marie’s style needs “boogie” and “swing,” while Marie questions Rosetta’s way of making gospel songs “sound dirty”. One’s interested in “bringing a little club to the church,” and the other in just the reverse.

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Amitria Fanae appears as real-life gospel musician/composer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in True Colors Theatre's "Marie and Rosetta." Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Amitria Fanae appears as real-life gospel musician/composer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in True Colors Theatre's "Marie and Rosetta."
Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

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Amitria Fanae appears as real-life gospel musician/composer Sister Rosetta Tharpe in True Colors Theatre's "Marie and Rosetta." Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Ellis excels in her lilting delivery of the traditional spirituals “Were You There” and “Peace in the Valley,” as does Fanae with her rocking renditions of such Tharpe standards as “This Train” and “Can’t Sit Down,” in addition to her introspective ballad “I Looked Down the Lane.” (Tharpe, a pioneer on the electric guitar, was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.) Together, they perform a handful of rousing duets: “Didn’t It Rain,” “Four or Five Times” and “Up Above My Head,” among others.

The musical numbers feature subtle shifts in the lighting of Toni Sterling, one of several members of an all-female design team that also includes Mejah Balams (set), Fontella A. Boone (costumes), Mikaela Fraser (sound), Crystal Power (projections), Fredrieka Lloyd (props) and Pearl Savannah Johnson (wigs).

Director Frye keeps “Marie and Rosetta” moving at a smooth and steady pace as the finish-line approaches — when, in its last 10-odd minutes, the show suddenly crashes and burns upon impact with a dramaturgical brick wall, in the form of a ludicrous plot twist perpetrated by playwright Brant. Not even Frye’s well-established directorial skills or the sheer stage presence of Fanae and Ellis can rectify it.

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"Marie and Rosetta," True Colors Theatre's production about real-life gospel musician/composer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, features Amitria Fanae. Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

"Marie and Rosetta," True Colors Theatre's production about real-life gospel musician/composer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, features Amitria Fanae.
Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

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"Marie and Rosetta," True Colors Theatre's production about real-life gospel musician/composer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, features Amitria Fanae. Courtesy of Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Although the pretentious, fatally flawed gimmick might deserve to be spoiled right here and now, suffice it to say that it removes the audience from the intimacy of this one night of rehearsal between the two characters, in the misconceived interest of imposing on us cursory factoids about how their future lives unfolded. It isn’t that we don’t care whether Tharpe was originally buried in an unmarked grave, or if Knight suffered a devastating family tragedy, but it distracts from the rest of the show rather than enhancing it in any significant way.

Rosetta instills in Marie the value of “owning up” to one’s gifts and appreciating their worth, a message Brant himself ultimately betrays. It’s their music that simultaneously grounds and uplifts “Marie and Rosetta,” not his outlandish narrative schemes.

THEATER REVIEW

“Marie and Rosetta”

Through Dec. 30. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 11 a.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays (Dec. 21 and 28); 7:30 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 26). $30-$45. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. 470-639-8241. www.truecolorstheatre.org.

Bottom line: An absolute joy, until it isn’t.