TR Robertson — For those of you who consider yourselves Rock and Roll history buffs, if I asked you who invented Rock and Roll music, most would give answers like Buddy Holly or Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis or Ike Turner or Chuck Berry. Good guesses, but not quite accurate. Cygnet Theatre’s production of “Marie and Rosetta” takes us back to 1946 when Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who is now referred to as the Godmother of Rock and Roll, is interviewing a young singer, who would become Sister Rosetta’s protégée, Marie Knight. Sister Rosetta’s story began in the 1930’s and 1940’s when a young gospel singer would combine her love of music with unique guitar stylings and a joyous delivery of the music combining a cross-over of secular and gospel music. Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley have all said Sister Rosetta’s music was an inspiration for them when they started their careers.
Photos by Karli Cadel
Cygnet’s play takes us to a funeral parlor, in 1946, when Sister Rosetta is auditioning a young singer, Marie Knight, to see if she fits into Sister Rosetta’s plans of restarting her career as a gospel singer and joining her as a duo for future performances. Sister Rosetta has had a successful career performing in various clubs across the country, but she now wants to return to her roots, performing gospel in venues in the South. Marie’s mother has arranged the meeting, but Marie is going through struggles since Rosetta’s musical style is not the traditional presentation of gospel music she has grown up on.
“Marie and Rosetta” was written by Playwright George Brant. His plays have been produced internationally and he is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Lucille Lortel Award, a Kennedy Center National Playwriting Award and many more. He has also been awarded a number of writing fellowships.
Noel Simone Wippler’s powerful voice and incredible stage presence brings Sister Rosetta back to life on stage and for a brief moment the audience witnesses the unique, joyful sound Sister Rosetta must have presented on stage during her performances. Noel is a multi-instrumental actor and songwriter from New York City and a graduate of Nyack College-Manhattan Campus. She has been awarded a number of vocal scholarships and jazz competitions. This background has led her to this wonderful interpretation of the lady that has been called “the original soul-sister”.
Playing the young protégée, Marie Knight, is Amaiya Holley. Amaiya is a graduate of Bowie College and made her professional debut in “Black Nativity” at Theater Alliance in Washington, D.C. Amaiya has an equally powerful voice and attacks the piano with ease. She portrays Marie both with a sensitive soft side and a young lady who desires to make something out of her life to help her children and to prove she is worthy of being on the big stage. She is at first intimidated by Sister Rosetta, but she soon learns that if she is to achieve what she wants in life, Sister Rosetta’s way may be the hard way, but for her, the right way.
Sister Rosetta and Marie would go on to form a powerful singing duo accomplishing a series of firsts for singing groups, such as performing in front of huge concert crowds in stadiums, moving from performance to performance on buses, introduction of an electric guitar and performing in front of integrated crowds. She remained in the background of the music world, a gospel world dominated in those years by Mahalia Jackson. Sister Rosetta does not speak kindly about her feeling of Mahalia’s style. Sister Rosetta would pass away in 1973, after a series of strokes and would be buried in an unmarked grave. Her grave site remained unmarked until 2008. Sister Rosetta was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
The productions dynamic duo is directed by Cygnet’s Associate Artistic Director Rob Lutfy. His Creative Team includes Musical Director Leonard Patton, Stage Manager Matthew Bantock, Assistant Director Genevieve Farbe, Sound Designer TJ Fucella, Properties Designer Rachel Hengst, Wig & Makeup Designer Peter Herman, Costume Designer Chanel A. Mahoney, Lighting Designer Anne E. McMills and Scenic Designer Elizabet Puksto.
The performances are outstanding, the music is moving, the emotions are touching and you will have an ah-ha moment toward the end of the play. “Marie and Rosetta” will run until February 16th at Cygnet Theatre located in Old Towne. Tickets are available by calling 619-337-1525 or go to www.cygnettheatre.org.