“Marie and Rosetta” at Amphibian Stage brings two of music’s underappreciated greats to the stage

Amphibian Stage brings the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight to Fort Worth from April 5-28.

"Marie and Rosetta" Amphibian Stage
Denise Jackson (left) as Marie Knight and Denise Lee as Rosetta Tharpe – Pictures courtesy of Evan Michael Woods

She’s called the “Godmother of Rock n’ Roll.” She toured the country, broke records and captured the imagination of many famous musicians to follow her. She inspired the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a star of the 1930s and 40s who brought audiences to their feet with her singing and guitar playing. Until recently, her story and many achievements have gone underappreciated in popular culture. The same is true for the similarly talented singer Marie Knight, who formed a popular duo with Tharpe during the late 40s.

Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage looks to continue to change that by bringing Tharpe and Knight’s story and sound to the stage for modern audiences with its upcoming production of “Marie and Rosetta” running from April 5-28. The play documents the musicians’ first rehearsal together in 1947 ahead of their historic tour.

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“Anytime I get to tell a story of someone who has changed the course of history, I’m all in,” Denise Lee, who plays Tharpe in the production, said. For Lee, the opportunity to tell Tharpe’s story and ensure “people knew that there were African American women in that time period (who were) incredibly successful” inspired her to join the show.

Before “Marie and Rosetta,” Lee only knew a little bit about Tharpe. She quickly learned as much as she could about her, watching videos online to get a feel for her music and style. “She was something else,” Lee said. “I liked her.”

Likewise, Director Egla Birmingham Hassan and “Marie and Rosetta” co-star Denise Jackson, who plays Knight in the production, researched to get more insight into the women. “I felt like, ‘Oh my goodness, my education is faulty here. I need to figure this out,’” Hassan said of learning about Tharpe and Knight and discovering their influence. Her curiosity made her decision to direct the Amphibian Stage production easy, even if the actual process of putting on the show has been nothing short of a whirlwind.

"Marie and Rosetta" Amphibian Stage
Director Egla Birmingham Hassan (right) at “Marie and Rosetta” rehearsals

The freelance director, who taught theater at Western Illinois University for over three decades and now works on shows around the country, joined the production in early February. She described the process of preparing for her Amphibian Stage directorial duties as a “crash course.”

“My poor house is a mess because I’ve been living and breathing this thing,” Lee said with a laugh of her own preparations for “Marie and Rosetta.” She described the challenges she’s faced with trying to embody Tharpe while learning a two-person script and rehearsing for various elements of the show. She doesn’t let those challenges stop her, however. Instead, she embraces the “wonderful experience” of working on the production. “Anything that doesn’t scare you is not worth doing,” Lee said.

Both award-winning and celebrated actors and singers in their own rights, Lee and Jackson will sing in the show while Tharpe’s guitar playing will come from guitarist Darrin Kobetich. Nonetheless, Lee’s all-in approach meant she still tried her hand at the guitar in her preparations for the production.

“I pulled out the guitar the other day, and my dog looked at me like a child and went, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Lee said, laughing. She’s practiced strumming to videos of Kobetich’s playing to create a cohesive match between the sound and the onstage performance.

As far as the singing goes, Lee described how she brings her own style into Tharpe’s unique vocals but aims to capture “the essence of her spirit” in her performance. “She would speak and sing sometime in a lot of her songs, unlike Marie, who had a very church gospel style,” Lee said.

“I was raised in the church and gospel music is my favorite genre of music to sing,” Jackson said, discussing how Knight’s style echoes her own and helps her to “feel like I’m staying true to myself” when performing.

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“What I love about this too is there tends to be a stereotype that if you’re Black and you sing in church that you’re a gospel singer,” Lee added. “I am not a gospel singer. I can sing some gospel music, but I can hear the gospel singer in Denise Jackson’s voice, and so what it does is it hopefully breaks the stereotype that everybody singing music in the church doesn’t have to sing it the same way.” Lee sees the pairing of Tharpe and Knight’s different vocal styles as Tharpe’s vision for making “something wonderful” together with Knight.

Lee and Jackson both see some of themselves in their respective “Marie and Rosetta” characters. When combined with Hassan’s directing and guidance, those similarities have helped them bring something wonderful of their own to Amphibian Stage. “I have so many similarities with the actual character Marie that it made it very easy for me to connect with Denise onstage,” Jackson said, crediting both her director and co-star with helping her bring the role to life.

“She was kind of a rebel. She knew who she was. She knew what she wanted to do, and as I get older, that’s just where I am,” Lee said of Tharpe. She appreciates having the opportunity to show the lives and personalities of the women in the show, along with the relationships they forged.

Lee said she feels she’s at a point where she’s “real careful about which shows I select because it has to be fun.” She recalled her excitement when she found out Jackson would be starring opposite her in “Marie and Rosetta.” “She’s just such a genuinely sweet, open spirit so it’s been very easy,” Lee said. “We have a lot of fun.”

“As a director, that’s my job to make sure it’s a nurturing kind of environment where that connection can happen,” Hassan said. She believes the chemistry between her two actors will continue to develop throughout the rehearsals and performances.

Hassan hopes Amphibian Stage audiences leave “Marie and Rosetta” not only with a better understanding and appreciation of Knight and Tharpe in their mind, but also a positive feeling and connection to the musicians in their heart. “I would like them to feel good,” Hassan said of the Amphibian Stage audiences.

“Marie and Rosetta” runs from April 5-28 at Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth. For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit https://amphibianstage.com/.

These interviews have been edited for clarity.


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