The scene is a modest funeral parlor in Jim Crow Mississippi, and gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe is on the verge of music history.
A pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, Tharpe stayed in places such as these funeral parlors in order to play her music in the South nearly 80 years ago. In “Marie and Rosetta,” this is the setting where she invites fellow singer Marie Knight to join her in what becomes one of the most impactful music duos of all time.
Hippodrome State Theatre’s newest play, brought to Gainesville in collaboration with St. Petersburg’s freeFall Theatre, celebrates Tharpe’s groundbreaking music and her unlikely partnership with Knight. An influence on renowned musicians such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry, the proclaimed “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll” received very little modern recognition until her induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
Known today as a black and LGBTQ+ icon, Tharpe set the scene for the rise of rock ‘n’ roll with her scandalous gospel lyrics and electric sound: Picking up an electric guitar, Tharpe went places other gospel singers wouldn’t dream of, including Knight when they first met.
The play follows a single rehearsal between Tharpe and Knight as they lay the foundation for both their bond and their historic music careers. Opening with Knight applying blush to Tharpe’s cheeks, the show follows the contrasting pair as they learn about each other through their lives and their music: from bonding over “squirrely” husbands to sharing their views on religion.
The dynamic Illeana Kirven and Hillary Scales-Lewis portray Tharpe and Knight, respectively. The two-woman cast dominates the stage with their complementary characters, revealing to the audience a chemistry so authentic it is prevalent both on and off the stage.
The two actresses portray each woman’s musical gifts with talents of their own, performing songs made popular by Tharpe such as “Didn’t It Rain,” “This Train” and the infamous “Rock Me.”
While the play shines a bright spotlight on Tharpe’s legacy, for many years Tharpe was forgotten in the shadows of music history. Passing away in 1973, Tharpe was buried in an unmarked grave and remained similarly unrecognized for decades after.
Kirven, who was familiar with some of Tharpe’s more spiritual songs through church, said she was surprised to find some of her more secular songs, and the many parts of her history that were previously unknown.
“Every time I Google her, there’s something new that pops up,” Kirven said. “And I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I know any of this?’”
From its toe-tapping tunes to Tharpe’s wicked humor, “Marie and Rosetta” is a celebration of Tharpe’s legacy and the bond she shared with Knight. For Scales-Lewis, an important part of the show is finally acknowledging Tharpe’s contributions to the world.
“It’s really incredible that people are knowing her name, they’re saying her name,” Scales-Lewis said. “They’re giving her the recognition that she deserved."
“Marie and Rosetta” opens today at the Hippodrome and will run through March 22. Tickets can be purchased on The Hippodrome’s website.
Contact Marlena Carrillo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcar313.
Hillary Scales-Lewis and Illeana Kirven in "Marie and Rosetta." Guitar player and gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe is recognized today as a pioneer of rock 'n' roll.