Park Square brings bad-ass rock 'n' roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe to life

'Marie and Rosetta'

'Marie and Rosetta' Petronella J. Ytsma

When Sister Rosetta Tharpe was named among this year's inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, her name was a head-scratcher for many music fans. Who was this guitar-slinging nun being honored alongside Bon Jovi and Dire Straits?

Marie and Rosetta

Park Square Theatre

To thrilling effect, Park Square Theatre's new production of Marie and Rosetta aims to answer that question: not just who this African-American icon was, but where she fits into rock history. By the end of this rousing show, you'll understand exactly how this sister's holy fire helped to ignite a million and more burning guitar licks.

George Brant's 2016 play — a product, in part, of workshopping at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis — finds Tharpe in Mississippi circa 1946. Then in her early 30s, Tharpe was established as a popular draw among black audiences, but she had to keep a low profile while touring through the segregated South.

That's why the lights come up on a funeral parlor, with stage costumes draped over the coffins in Joseph Stanley's invitingly warm stage design. Tharpe (Jamecia Bennett) is running a quick rehearsal with her newly-hired tourmate, Marie Knight (Rajané Katurah Brown). As the women chat and play, the show unfolds like a concert, with 13 songs sprinkled liberally across a 100-minute running time.

Wendy Knox's capable direction suits Brant's unfussy script. As concert-plays go, Marie and Rosetta doesn't have the high pathos of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, but nor is it as glib as a jukebox musical like Million Dollar Quartet. Tharpe recounts her struggles with racism and almost offhandedly dismisses her troublesome "squirrels" (husbands), but the focus here is squarely on the music.

Knight, fresh off a bill with Mahalia Jackson, is portrayed as a relatively conservative singer, uncomfortable with the sensuality Tharpe injects to her songs of faith. Rosetta coaches Marie on how to add a little swing. She's patient with her protégé, but finally has to speak plainly: If Knight is going to judge Tharpe's distinctive approach, this isn't going to work.

Alone on stage, Bennett and Brown easily command our attention. Convincingly miming along to offstage playing by guitarist Michael May and pianist Natalia Peterson, they convey complete rapture and deliver vocal performances that can blow you back against your seat. Saturday night's audience gasped, clapped, and in one man's case even took the radical step of standing to cheer before the ovation.

Under the guidance of music director Gary D. Hines, this production makes crystal clear how Tharpe built a bridge from gospel to R&B — especially in the climactic numbers, when she pulls out her electric guitar. Her use of that instrument helped define its style as the signature instrument of rock ‘n’ roll.

Both actors are excellent, but Bennett properly commands the show with a must-see performance as an artist who feels the spirit and knows she's found an exciting new way to share it. She's touchingly encouraging of Knight, and part of Bennett's achievement is to balance respect for her collaborator with hints that her admiration for the beautiful Brown is not purely professional. Brown sensitively acknowledges the tension, and we're left with a haunting sense of crucial truths left unspoken.