Northlight’s ‘Marie and Rosetta’ Brushes the Gates of Heaven

I respect everyone’s right to their own beliefs when it comes to religion. For those who are believers, Marie and Rosetta at Northlight Theatre may well be a religious experience. In fact, the performances of Bethany Thomas and Alexis J. Roston will convert nonbelievers too.

There are a few times in my life where I have felt elation that I can only describe as touching heaven. Two of those times involved performing music – being so engrossed in the song and so connected to the other singer that I felt like I left my body and simply existed as a feeling of pure happiness and joy.

One of those times was when I was singing alongside the great blues and gospel legend Gloria Haridman. The other was singing with a street musician whose career had been cut short when he was seduced by the needle. But he still had the talent.


I mention those two extremes because no matter where you are in life, music can be your connection to whatever heaven you believe in. And that is probably the best definition I can give of gospel music. When it achieves its purpose, you feel like you are touching heaven.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is regarded as the Godmother of Rock n’ Roll. A gospel singer with a raucous voice and fierce guitar chops who was popular in the 1930s and 1940s she is credited as being a primary influence on the styles of such greats as singers like Elvis Presley and Little Richard and guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

Tharpe was considered the first great gospel recording artist and had a style that translated to rhythm and blues and would be credited as planting the seeds of rock n’ roll.

A few years into her career, she toured and recorded with Marie Knight. With Tharpe on guitar and Knight on piano, they raised hell with their voices in praise of the lord as a top performing and recording act. It was billed as a “saint and sinner” duo.

As presented in George Brant’s staggeringly brilliant script, Tharpe was at the height of popularity, but she said she saw something special when she witnessed Knight as an opening act. She plucked her out of the chorus and put her in the limelight.

Northlight’s Marie and Rosetta is going to be the hottest ticket in Chicago. It features two epic performances that will literally make your skin tingle and leave you mesmerized. It features flawless direction by E. Faye Butler and phenomenal music direction by Morgan E. Stevenson.

If I had the right producers on speed dial, I would repackage it for an extended run in the city or possibly New York. Northlight’s Marie and Rosetta is better than a lot of shows on Broadway.


I feel electric just writing about the performance of Bethany Thomas as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I can’t imagine anyone ever playing the role with the same complexity of emotions, lusty voice, and overall mastery of the music. If they filmed the show from start to finish and released it as a movie, Thomas would be credited as the woman who won the Best Actress Oscar for a performance in one take.

Nobody wins an award in a two-person play if both performers aren’t incredible. Alexis J. Roston is jaw-droppingly commanding in her demonstration as an award-worthy actress and criminally talented vocalist.

Roston is the mouse to Thomas’s lion, but her Marie is a mouse that learns to roar. And the first step for Tharpe’s young protégé to learn to roar is to learn her own value. Everyone has a gift, and you have to know what your gift is worth and not accept anything less.

Marie and Rosetta features such amazing songs performed by truly blessed artists that it would be worth seeing simply as a concert. However, the George Brant script is a work of art.

The characters are alive and real. The dialogue is believable but pertinent to the story being told. The plot twists are exquisitely executed to touch the heart rather than shock. Brant has achieved a rare beauty with this one. It is not dainty but rather robust and flavorful – a hearty serving of prime rib.


The story is set in a funeral home in the 1940s. Tharpe is a successful recording artist who has just plucked young unknown Knight from obscurity the night before. After traveling all night, they are getting in their one rehearsal before they debut in a big concert.

In the South in the 1940s, there were not many options for lodging for people of color. Touring musicians relied on the generosity of local businesses for places to stay and rehearse because there weren’t motels that would house them. Hence, how Marie and Rosetta end up pounding out heart-stopping gospel in a funeral home.

The setting is perfect. A funeral home gives off an energy like a church in some regards – commanding a sense of reverence. Thus, it is an ideal place for the gospel songs that Marie and Rosetta share.

Yet it is not a church, is it? So, it does not seem so out of place to be talking about all the activities that are going to require praying for forgiveness later – what life will be like trying to balance the worlds of religion and music. Set designer John Culbert and props designer Lonnae Hickman expertly bring this to life.

Lighting design by Jared Gooding is innately good. Gooding’s lights flow with the ebb and flow of the music and the mood in perfect harmony with the sound design by Rick Sims.

Costumes by McKinley Johnson are simple, not trying to be anything more than perfect for the story. Wigs by Sean Moore are excellent.

Kudos to Butler on her directorial debut. Norhtlight Theatre made a smart decision when they hired her.

See you at awards season!

Marie and Rosetta plays Wednesdays through Sundays, with matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

A Relaxed/Sensory Sensitivity performance will be held on July 26 at 7:30 PM.

An Open Captioned and ASL Interpreted performance will be held on July 28 at 8 PM.

An Open Captioned and Audio Described/Touch Tour performance will be held on July 29 at 2:30 PM.

Northlight Theatre is located at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., in Skokie on Chicago’s North Shore. There is ample parking.

For tickets call the box office at (847) 673-6300 or visit

Photo credit Michael Brosilow.

Another great show to put on your calendar is THE PRINCESS STRIKES BACK. This hit touring comedy is coming to Chicago for two performances. I highly recommend you catch at least one!

The Princess Strikes Back answers that question in a way everyone can relate to. It will make you smile until your cheeks burn and laugh like you haven’t laughed in years.

Coming to Chicago’s North Shore at the historic Skokie Theatre on Friday August 11 and Friday August 18,

For tickets:

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area


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