The play highlights the relationship between Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her protégé.
The Rep’s production of Marie and Rosetta is Johnique Mitchell’s second opportunity to portray gospel singer Marie Knight on stage. This is the first time Mitchell has played the same character twice and says it’s a dream.
“There is a lot of similarity of course because it’s the same story, but it’s a different show and that’s the beauty of it because I get to dig even deeper into Marie’s humanity in this production,” she says.
Mitchell first became acquainted with the character in a 2018 production of Marie and Rosetta in Detroit.
“I fell in love with her character because the journey that Marie has to take in the show is a journey of self-worth and owning that worth, and Rosetta teaches her that lesson,” Mitchell says.
Knight was a protégé of the “Godmother of Rock and Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Born in Cotton Plant, Ark., Tharpe was a musician who brought fierce guitar playing and swing to gospel music, inspiring the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix.
Marie and Rosetta premiered at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City in 2016. A special version of the play has been written for the Little Rock production. The show’s story focuses on the relationship between Knight and Tharpe, the latter of whom Mitchell describes as a woman ahead of her time.
“She was in a church gown with an electric guitar all in one,” Mitchell says. “She was a proud queer Black woman. She was a Christian woman. She was all of these things in one concoction that made her really a unicorn in that time.”
Miche Braden portrays Tharpe on stage and is a “force of nature” who challenges Mitchell, which the actress loves.
“She gives so much truth and so much groundedness that I have to step up to the plate so that we can be eye level and play together,” Mitchell says.
Steve Broadnax III, a Little Rock native making his Broadway directing debut this fall, is directing the two women in the 90-minute production. Mitchell first met Broadnax at Penn State University where he was the head of acting for her graduate school program.
The energy between the three creatives as they worked on this production has been magnetic, a welcome feeling after the pandemic cancelled much of in-person theater performances for the last year, Mitchell says.
“It was something that I didn’t know that I needed,” she says. “It was so healing to be in this rehearsal process…it was like church. It was like church.”
During the past few weeks, many of the performances have been staged outside under a tent on the grounds of War Memorial Park. With much of the state under a heat advisory this week, the production is moving indoors to The Rep stage for the remainder of its performances.
Sharing the story of these two African American women on stage (indoors or outdoors) is extremely necessary, Mitchell says, especially now when the teaching of Black history is being challenged in some spaces across the country.
“We should know who Sister Rosetta Tharpe is and she should have been given her flowers when she was here,” Mitchell says. “But I think the best we can do is continue to tell her story and many giants and icons like her because we didn’t just start having Black excellence. Black excellence has always been here.”
Marie and Rosetta is onstage at The Rep in Little Rock through Aug. 1. Tickets and more information is available at www.therep.org.