It took actress Illeana Kirven 20 hours and change to make the drive, straight through, from her home in Texas to St. Petersburg, where she’d been cast in freeFall Theatre’s new play Marie and Rosetta.
When she rolled across the Louisiana border, the skies opened up. “The weather was horrible,” Kirven reports. “I think it rained all across Louisiana.”
Because the world of theater is full of omens, superstitions and serendipitous suggestions passed down through the ages, this may very well have been a very good sign, as Kirven was on her way to play gospel music pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose most famous song is called “Didn’t it Rain”:
It rained 40 days, 40 nights without stopping
Noah was glad when the rain stopped dropping
Knock at the window, a knock at the door
Crying brother Noah can’t you take on more
Noah cried no, you’re full of sin
God got the key and you can’t get in
Just listen how it’s rainin’
Will you listen how it’s rainin’
In her car, as the precipitation pounded down, Kirven listened to a recording she’d made of Marie and Rosetta, with a friend taking the part of Marie Knight, the other character in George Brant’s historically-rooted play. This was one of her line-learning techniques.
She also studied, on tape, the Tharpe songs she’d be singing in the show – including “Didn’t it Rain.”
All this last-minute precision study was necessary because Kirven had been hired to replace another performer, who’d had to back out of the freeFall production less than a week before it opened.
She was in front of an audience before she knew what had happened. And from the first words out of her mouth, on that first night, she absolutely owned Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The reviews have been outstanding.
Kirven, a “glass half full” kind of person, says she didn’t worry about any of it, not for a second. Although she’d never worked at freeFall before, she was longtime friends with Artistic Director Eric Davis and Community Development Director Matthew McGee.
“I knew coming into this that they were not going to leave me hanging. I knew I was in good hands,” she explains. “As a performer, I couldn’t be more thankful. Plus, I get to work, and I have a new friend now.”
Kirven’s new bestie is Hillary Scales-Lewis, who plays Marie Knight, Tharpe’s real-life young protégé (the play takes place in 1946, when the events actually happened).
Marie and Rosetta are the only characters in Marie and Rosetta; as such, their chemistry is paramount. They have to look right together, act right together – and, of course, sound right together, as Brant’s show is jammed with rafter-raising music.
“It was go-go-go as soon as she got here,” says Scales-Lewis, a native of Virginia. “We would have these little moments of bonding over coffee in the morning, and getting ready … ‘Hi, I’m Hillary!’ ‘Where are you from?’
Adds Kirven: “I think we hit if off right away. She’s been the angel. She’s been a rock for me.”
Both performers are veteran musical theater professionals. Kerven’s resume includes powerhouse roles in Ghost, Sister Act, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and a dozen more, while Scales-Lewis lists The Wiz, Smokey Joe’s Café, Company and many others as career highlights.
Neither actress was one hundred percent familiar with the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, who collaborated on many pivotal songs and recordings that shortened the gaps between gospel, blues, swing and what would come to be called rock ‘n’ roll.
“Growing up in the church,” Scales-Lewis says, “you know some of the music – ‘Peace in the Valley,’ ‘Didn’t it Rain.’ Then when I started researching Rosetta’s story, and everything about her and Marie, I thought wow, what an interesting story.’ A story that I was never even aware of. It just never came on my radar.
“I think it’s really cool to have a piece of theater that pays homage to these ladies.”
Kirven’s connection was a little closer. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe grew up COGIC, which is Church of God in Christ, and I did too,” she says. “And so I grew up with the shouting and the speaking in tongues and all of that kind of thing.
“I wasn’t familiar with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s full history – I didn’t know she’d played the Cotton Club, those sorts of things – but I was familiar with the same songs as Hillary, and even hearing them sung in my church growing up.
“Even today, those songs are so iconic in the church. They’re still alive there. Alive and well.”
The central conflict in Marie and Rosetta is whether Knight, a prim piano player and gospel harmonizer with one foot firmly planted in the church, can accept the already-famous Tharpe’s sexually-charged, rhythmic approach to gospel and join her on the stage. This is Tharpe’s desire, as she has seen Knight perform – on a bill with Mahalia Jackson – and thinks the two will complement one another (hint: she’s right).
The show takes place in a single evening, as the two talk, bicker, laugh, argue, console each other, solve the world’s problems and – tentatively at first – sing together.
Sacred, secular or somewhere in between, the songs come rolling out with barrelhouse piano and amplified guitar: “This Train,” “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “Tall Skinny Papa.”
This proves to be what unites them in spirit, despite their differences.
In Kirven’s view, all doubt vanishes “once Rosetta gets Marie to own up to what the truth is, for their relationship to be truthful. And for them to be able to find the fun and the joy, and have it all be meaningful and real.
“And I think once they find that connection, then their love for each other can blossom as well.”
Says Scales-Lewis: “I think it happens once Marie realizes this was all a part of Rosetta’s mission; her mission in a way was to bring people together through music.
“Once she realized that, it clicked: ‘Oh, this is a gift from God that’s she’s using. It’s all connected in this way, through music.’ That’s when she’s on board. She realizes ‘This is a good thing that you’re doing. You’re inspiring people.’”
Once it closes on Feb. 16, this production of Marie and Rosetta will travel to the Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville for three weeks. The current Hippodrome show, Lone Star Spirits, will concurrently move to freeFall, where it will be onstage Feb. 29-March 29.
Tickets and info here.