There are two women who are often ignored in the discussion about rock ‘n’ roll, but had an influence on the pop culture phenomenon—one that revolutionized the American music scene. They don’t come up in a Google search for famous rock artists, but one was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, 45 years after she died.
The women, Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, are the subjects of Marie and Rosetta, a show put on by the Greater Boston Stage Company and the Front Porch Arts Collective from Oct. 17 to Nov. 10.
The Front Porch Arts Collective is an organization dedicated to combating racism through theatre in the Greater Boston area. It aims to “examine interactions between race, culture, economics, ability, gender, and sexuality from the black and brown perspective.”
Director Pascale Florestal brought this production to the Front Porch to tell the relatively unknown stories of two women who revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll and inspired so many artists.
“For me, this production is not only to honor Rosetta and Marie, but to honor all of the other forgotten people of color who innovated and redefined our world,” Florestal said in a press release. “I am doing this project for Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all the other forgotten women of color who have paved the way for successful white men.”
The play tells the true story of musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who is considered the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, and her protégée, Marie Knight.
Tharpe became legendary through her unique voice and unconventional approach of blending gospel music and guitar picking. She was open and provocative with her lyrics and influenced artists such as Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley. Tharpe was one of the first rock ‘n’ roll artists to incorporate an electric guitar into the style.
Tharpe and Knight embarked on a successful tour in the 1940s, and the play primarily focuses on their relationship while featuring some of Tharpe’s greatest hits. It includes challenging conversations about racism, sexuality, religion, and gender.
Knight is initially depicted as timid and is intimidated by Tharpe’s vibrant personality, but the two share personal stories and grow closer. Knight’s traditional views are challenged by Tharpe’s innovative ideas and she comes out of her shell both on and off stage.
Tharpe is played by award-winning performer, educator, songwriter, and singer, Lovely Hoffman. Hoffman’s viral single, “My Black is Beautiful,” topped at No. 45 on the Adult Contemporary Radio Charts. She has also been featured on TeenVogue and CNN.
Pier Lamia Porter plays Knight in her first performance with the Greater Boston Stage Company. Some of her other credits include Little Shop of Horror and To Kill a Mockingbird. She has a bachelor’s of music in opera performance from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
As the only two actors in the show, Hoffman and Porter needed to turn in compelling performances, and they certainly did. Hoffman, in particular, shines as she encompasses a diva and legend of the musical world.
Despite her musical success, Tharpe faced many challenges on the road because of her skin color. Restaurants and hotels frequently refused to let her in, and she rarely had a place to spend the night. The play is set in a funeral home, where Tharpe and Knight have to sleep in empty caskets. They also have to rely on whatever their bus driver could find for food.
Rosetta and Marie is a triumphant and heartfelt production that sheds light on racism, religion, sexuality, and gender—as the Front Porch Arts Collective aims to do. Hoffman radiates joy and engages the audience throughout.
The soundtrack, especially, is a success, and Hoffman and Porter’s incredible voices blend together beautifully. The final song, “Peace in the Valley,” brought members of the audience to tears, contrasting with many of the other numbers that were rhythmic and lively. The music adds an entirely new element to the show that characterizes Marie and Rosetta, as well as their experiences, cultures, and outlooks.
“Too often when I read a story about an incredible person of color and their amazing contributions to our world, I am shocked that I don’t know them,” Florestal said in the release.
“Mostly I am left with shame—ashamed that we have continued to let these people be forgotten, letting their stories and contributions be swept under the rug as if they were not important.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios