It’s a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s singularity that Mosaic Theater Company can’t find a persuasive way to embody her onstage. Tharpe was an electric guitar-playing gospel-blues singer in the days before rock-and-roll, and was inducted this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In George Brant’s bio-drama “Marie and Rosetta,” Roz White acts and sings as Tharpe, while Barbara Roy Gaskins handles the task of playing guitar.
Tharpe’s musical partner Marie Knight is halved, too: Ayana Reed acts and sings while Ronnette F. Harrison — as a kind of spirit Marie — plays piano. The ungainliness comes from having the actresses pretend to play right next to real players, with White fake-strumming guitars as Gaskin, sitting on the side, executes the licks. Odder yet is the sight of White and Reed standing over Harrison at the piano, possibly playing some notes (we can’t see the keyboard) even though it’s the formidable Harrison who glues the music together for most of the 100-minute night.
The distraction matters because signature Tharpe songs such as “This Train” and “Rock Me” are far more galvanizing than Brant’s perfunctory script, which is an undistinguished entry in Washington’s always crowded field of historical jukebox celebrations. In this telling, Rosetta is a lovable rascal raised in the church but born to sing the blues, and Marie is a wide-eyed church girl scandalized by her idol’s rough edges.
The show imagines them getting to know each other temperamentally and musically as they rehearse in a funeral parlor (Andrew R. Cohen’s low-ceilinged set in the Atlas Performing Arts Center is excellent). Too inevitably, the personalities slouch toward the common ground in the middle.
Saving graces include the always likable White, very funny as Tharpe without hamming it up even though the role is practically written in mustard. Sandra L. Holloway briskly directs the first half of the show like a crackerjack comedy, and why not? Tharpe’s salty punchlines keep coming.
It’s a pleasure to hear White unwind a hymn or a gospel tune and roll into gutbucket blues; she’s a rock-solid singer. Reed is fine, too, enunciating with precision as the prissy church girl Marie (well, maybe not so prissy — the young Marie has more experience behind her than Rosetta expects).
Both women excel at slow-burning hymns, wringing honest feeling from each note. And when they want to cut loose, usually with Harrison driving the rhythms on piano, that singing works, too; musical director e’Marcus Harper-Short makes sure the songs sound authentic. You expect more guitar, since that’s what marked Tharpe’s act, but Gaskins doesn’t enter until late and isn’t handed an awful lot.
There’s a better play to be written about Tharpe and Knight, and a better performance to be forged, too, though you can’t fault the four women playing these two historical figures. Brant’s script needs to push past the skimpy book report history that mars so many bio-musicals. As for how to capture the lightning of someone like Tharpe, a singer with bite and a guitarist with pioneering edge — a dilemma like that can give you the blues.
Marie and Rosetta by George Brant. Directed by Sandra L. Holloway. Lights, Johnathan Alexander; costumes, Michael A. Murray; sound design, Gordon Nimmo-Smith. About 100 minutes. Through Sept. 30 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $20-$68. 202-399-7993 or mosaictheater.org.