Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jacqueline Harriet
September 20th, 2016
Let me set the scene for you. There’s a moment at the beginning of Marie and Rosetta where young, aspiring singer Marie Knight is asked to perform for gospel star/early rock-and-roll influencer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And Marie is good—really good. What do you think happens next? A version of All About Eve? Wrong. In the 90 minutes of Atlantic Theater Company’s two-person play with music, Marie and Rosetta, we watch two women support each other while also challenging each other’s ideas about faith, ambition, and more. Two equally interesting and accomplished women embody them: Kecia Lewis as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Marie Knight. Kecia was most recently seen in the title role of Mother Courage at Classic Stage Company, and has also appeared in Once on This Island, Big River, and Dessa Rose (to name a few). Rebecca can currently be seen on Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll on FX, and has appeared on Broadway in American Idiot, Passing Strange, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We talked with them about how they prepared for Marie and Rosetta, music, being ambitious, and more.
I wanted to start by talking about your process. How do you prepare? When you get a script for a show—like for Marie and Rosetta—what is your jumping in point?
Rebecca: You know, it always depends on who the character is, I think, for what the jumping off point is. For me, at least.
Kecia: Me too.
Rebecca: I was saying the other day at one of our talkbacks that, for example, if the character has an accent, is from somewhere else, I’ll start with that. To sort of get a “mouth feel” for the character and the rhythm, that helps a lot. Even these characters [in Marie and Rosetta], I think they speak in a certain kind of way that’s different from our own way of speaking. I think just getting your mouth wrapped around the words of this character and this character’s way of speaking is the way to go. How about you?
Kecia: I think for me, I start looking at the emotional life first. Because of who I am as a person, I just tend to be more interested in that, so the first thing I’m going to look at is what’s going on with them emotionally in this play, and then kind of use that as the jump-off point of, “Okay, let me learn who this person is.” That’s generally how I start and then, like Rebecca said, it all depends on the character. Sometimes it’s outside-in work, sometimes it’s inside-out. I think generally though, it’s inside-out for me. Starting from the inside, out.
Rebecca: Me too.
Did you do any research for this production?
Kecia: I had known her name, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, from childhood, but I didn’t know exactly who she was. I had been approached a few years back, like three years back, from another person who was writing another play about her, and who said, “I think you’d make a great Rosetta Tharpe. Do you know who she is?” And I said, “No, not really,” and he told me a book to read, and that kind of started me researching her. I had known a little bit about her. So I had already done some reading up on her, and looking at tape and stuff, and I felt emotionally connected. I felt like just watching her, I was like, “Oh yeah!” I get who this woman is. Once I thought that it really might happen—that I might play her—then I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get guitar lessons. I’ve got to figure out how that works because I’ve never played guitar before.” That’s kind of what my process was, starting out.
Rebecca: I would say the same thing. I think it’s always exciting to use any resources that you have available. For this particular play, there’s less out there for Marie Knight than there is for Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Some of the materials that are out there on Rosetta Tharpe are actually helpful in terms of Marie. Just in terms of time frame and aesthetic and that sort of thing. Just even looking at photographs of Marie and hearing the recordings of them together, gives us a nice sense of who they were. Even just hearing somebody’s singing voice, I think, does a lot for you. And does a lot for you emotionally, too.
Kecia: Yeah, it does. It informs you. It really informs you about this person. How they approach their art, and stuff like that.
Do you both have fairly visceral responses to music?
Rebecca: Absolutely. More than anything. [For example] I was at Forever 21 in the Beverly Center in LA around Christmastime when I was on tour with a musical, and I heard that Mariah Carey version of “O Holy Night,” and there’s a part of the music where it swells and the choir comes in and they’re singing the “fall on your knees” part, and I just started crying in the fucking Forever 21 at a table of poorly made sweaters.
Kecia: I’ve always been, from a child, very, very responsive to music, and I think probably in my teenage years was when I started to notice how different music made me feel different ways, so that if I needed to get to another place emotionally, I learned you pick a certain kind of music. As a teenager, it was like a lifeline for me in a lot of ways. Because I was different and odd—like most actors are within their circle of normal people—and so it made me feel like I could be like other people in the sense of appreciating music, but I was different and that was okay, in that I knew that certain music could take me to certain places. The significance of this play for me is that gospel music is my favorite genre of music. I listen to all kinds of gospel music. Spirituals, traditional. There’s only one type of gospel music I cannot stand, and that’s male quartet singing. I can’t do it.
Rebecca: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard male quartet gospel music.
Kecia: Can’t do it. I just can’t. I don’t know what it is about it, it just bugs me. I think it’s kind of the feminist in me, it’s just kind of like—
Kecia: Why? Why? You’ve had enough to say. Shut up. No one cares. You know?
Rebecca: That’s funny.
Kecia: Gospel music for me is transformative. Gospel music has been the genre for me that causes me to kind of think about my life and changes that I want to make, or additions or subtractions. It’s just something about that music that grips me in a certain way that helps me to transform. I’ve done a couple of independent albums and they’ve both been gospel music because that’s all I’ve been interested in, so I, like Sister Rosetta, like mixing genres. I like gospel mixed with jazz, or gospel mixed with R&B, or gospel mixed with classical. You know, all those kind of combinations are interesting to me.
I usually ask this when it comes to people doing revivals, but I thought it would be interesting here too, because you have a contemporary playwright, but a play that takes place in the past. Was there any conversation around how you balance the fact that you have characters from the 1940s and are performing for an audience of today?
Rebecca: The playwright [George Brant], he is writing the play, honoring the time in which the play takes place, but even though he’s a man and he’s a white man, he’s writing a play from the perspective of a person today, and I think he is an educated and forward-thinking white man. And so, because of that, the play really honors these two women who, for their time, were very radical. Especially Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But Marie came right along with that. That’s all we can do is be truthful to that, and I think the audience really picks up on that. That’s what’s so cool about this story, is that these women did the best they could within the parameters that they had.
Kecia: I agree. I don’t think internally things really change with people in different timeframes of life, whether it’s the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 90s. I think, again, for me, it goes back to the emotional part. It’s like, if you’re a woman with ambition, and you want to accomplish something, you do whatever it takes within the framework that you have to work in to make it happen. And that doesn’t change whether it’s 2016 or 1946. I think that’s a universal thing, a human thing. I, too, am amazed that this evolved, straight white male could write about these women in such a way that is so truthful and so moving, and I think it’s only because he’s an evolved person. I’m a mom, and listening to how Marie talks about her children (because Rosetta didn’t have any), that was so moving to me, and I asked him, “How did you get that? How were you able to really understand that and put that into words? What it feels like to be a working mother.” He was like, “I don’t know, I just imagined what it must feel like.” And he was right. That, too, is universal, you know?
One of the reasons I really wanted to do this with you two together is that I think it’s so rare for there to be a show with two female characters where it’s about mentorship and there’s no competition between them. They’re helping each other, which I think is great.
Rebecca: It is special. We see that same thing: how rare that is? Not only is there no competition between the characters, but they love each other. Over the course of one evening—one scene really—they get to know each other. They debate with each other. They meet each other from very different places and come to understand each other and themselves much better. But they really fall in love. And they’re both strong characters. It’s an interesting thing because the social code between them is such that one person, from looking at it at a certain standpoint, has the power, and the other person does not. They really both have a lot of strength and a lot of power. Which is so, so cool.
Kecia: It’s unusual, it’s rare, it’s special. It’s beautiful. It needs to happen more. Because I just feel like these characters, these women, recognize that the other one has something to give them that they need. And they go after it. That is very unusual without there being competition. Our director [Neil Pepe] kind of gave us permission to bring as much of ourselves to it as we wanted, so I think it’s indicative of who Rebecca is as a human and who I am as a human. I love it. [It’s like] You do you, but I want to glean from you, and I glean from her. I think being able to marry all that together is so rare and so special and it should be celebrated.
And you have two women who are wrestling with their spiritual ideologies and how they want to function in the world, and I think that’s a really rare thing to see, as well.
Kecia: Absolutely. And it’s fun to play. It’s really fun to play.
Rebecca: It is, because it’s complex. It’s like, none of these characters are one thing at all. I think over the course of the play, both characters learn so much and change so much and so often, which we do all the time. It’s great. It’s great.
What’s it like exploring that on stage? Is it something that resonates with both of you in your personal lives?
Kecia: I grew up in a church and going to church, and although right now I am on a sabbatical from church, I consider myself a church-going person and a spiritual person. Looking at the struggles that we all have, the questions that we all ask ourselves in trying to define an absolute or what we’ve been told is an absolute, I think we all have that on some level and in some way, and being able to explore those kinds of questions I think is really special.
Rebecca: For me, being somebody who doesn’t go to church, but being someone who is, I think, spiritual, has a sense of “other” that says that there is a bigger picture spirit that wants the best for humanity, what’s been beautiful about working on this play is the way that Rosetta teaches Marie to see spirituality and to see the broadness of God’s love, and seeing God as an overwhelmingly loving being as opposed to an overwhelmingly judging being. I think along with that, the music, it goes back to what you’re asking about music being something that does something to us emotionally. I mean, music is God, right? Music is church. There’s something about it that goes to your soul and makes you feel like you’re a part of something and you’re cared for and like someone understands you. You’re not alone. That’s spirituality. Somebody actually asked me, “How do I get into this music, being somebody that’s not necessarily Christian?”
You’re Jewish, yes?
Rebecca: Yeah. I was like, “Well, it’s all about gratitude.” I mean who can’t get behind songs that are all about gratitude for this life that we have? It’s actually been a very spiritual experience for me to work on this play. We four ladies, we pray before we go on stage every night, and that has been a real blessing for me. The last year and a half, I’ve dealt with a little bit of anxiety, out of nowhere, and it’s funny because music and community has helped with that so much. Both listening to music and also communing with these women, and praying to a being who will take care of us has been really powerful.
And then, as we touched on earlier, there’s the theme of women and ambition. You have two women trying to decide what it takes to get what they want and dealing with how society views that.
Kecia: I think that Rosetta was clearly ambitious. She was clear about what she wanted and where she wanted to go with her gift, with her talent. She was also very clear that utilizing all aspects of yourself, and not just one aspect that’s comfortable for everybody else, is not nearly as important as doing what you feel is right. That married with, “I want to be somebody, I want to transcend where I’ve come from, I want to do something different, I’m open to all kinds of people and learning from them,” that theme is really prevalent in the show. I think in relation to where we are today as a society, it feels to me like it’s only been in the last 15, maybe 20 years, that it’s even been okay for women to say, “I am ambitious. I have goals in my career. This is how I’m going to hit those goals and these are the markers.” To celebrate women who were doing that without being able to verbalize or, as far as we know, not verbalizing that that’s what they were doing, I think that’s rare and really special.
Rebecca: Yeah, it is. I think there’s this other part of it that’s so interesting too, which is the internal struggle. Because there’s a part of the play that deals with how you have a choice between, do you want to stay home and be with your kids and not pursue your dream, or do you want to pursue your dream and sort of give up that other version of life? We’re still fighting so much in terms of telling other people, “Yes, I’m ambitious and that’s okay, and I’m going to do the things that I want to do. I’m going to accomplish the things that I want to accomplish.” Then there is this other, quieter struggle, I think, between the ideas, like, “Can I have it all? Can I have a family and a life and quality of life and a good home and a child and all of that? And have a career and…” It’s a lot for women. Because we are capable of so much. Really, we are so strong, and we can actually do it all. We are incredible beings.
Kecia: We’re jugglers.
Rebecca: Yeah, we’re jugglers, and so that is just… that’s a lot on a person.
Kecia: It’s hard. I mean, I’m doing it right now and have been doing it for a while. I’m a single mom. I’m divorced now four years, and I never imagined that I would be a single mom. That wasn’t even on my radar. But when it happened, it was like, “Okay. You’ve got to figure out how to do this.” It’s still evolving, it always will be. And some days I feel like I’m failing miserably, and other days I feel like I am the shit. I am doing it all and I’m doing it well. But you do the best you can. It’s managing, learning how to manage the different parts of your life, and because women are multi-taskers, we’re good at it, but we’re not always comfortable with it. We’re comfortable with certain pieces of it, parts of it. I have a friend who’s an actress. She’s in Phantom of the Opera right now. She and I used to talk about that all the time. We shared a dressing room doing a show. She has two kids, and she’s not a single mom. But we talked about that all the time of, “Man, I want to be a star, but I don’t think I can.” I don’t think I can, because I got this other stuff that is so important and pulls on my heart just as hard, if not harder, than my desire to just be this artist, you know? It’s a juggling act.
Do you feel like you had people in the industry to look to for help and to be like, “Okay, how do you actually, like, do this?” It seems like those conversations have evolved some and now it’s more okay to be like, “No, this is a real issue and we should talk about it,” rather than a while ago when I think there was more pressure to be like, “Everything is fine.”
Kecia: Exactly. For me, personally, it’s been more… not necessarily me being mentored by women older than me who’ve done it as much as it’s being mentored and co-mentoring with those of us who are in the same space. We all are asking each other, “Okay, when you have to negotiate this contract, and you have to bring your kid, what exactly are you asking for?” I have a group of women that I can call and say, “Now, how did you do that? You got them to build what in your dressing room?” All those kinds of conversations, because it’s been more prevalent lately. It’s more co-mentoring, because the older women were like, “Child, I’ve got a nanny and you do what you’ve got to do.” But some of us don’t have that luxury, so I’m asking women who are in the same boat as me who are doing theatre, who are doing television, and they’re picking up kids at 3 o’clock and getting kids off to school at 7, and you just go home at 11:30pm or midnight. That whole thing.
Rebecca: People are having a conversation more recently about having children and working at the same time. I think having those conversations is allowing it to be less of a stigma and less another way for men to decide that women are not capable of doing their jobs. I think the more people are talking about it, the more people are realizing, “Oh, she can handle that,” at the same time. That sort of thing.
Did either of you feel like there was any type of learning curve in terms of, in your own lives, feeling like “I’m ambitious and that’s okay”?
Kecia: It took me a while to accept it. Those two words—ambitious and competitive—those were taboo to me. I don’t know where I got the message. My mother never said, and nobody ever told me that’s not okay. But I got that message that it was not okay to be either of those two things. I’ve evolved over the years to a place of going, “You know what? That’s not a dirty word.” Those two words are not dirty as it relates to women because they’re not dirty as it relates to men. Nobody thinks twice about that for men. It’s very freeing to be able to recognize that about yourself. Competition doesn’t have to be nasty and awful and mean. It’s just competition. It’s like, “Girl, we are up for the same role, and if I don’t get it, I hope it’s you, but I’m sure going to try and get it.” There’s nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. That’s healthy competition.
Rebecca: I think that’s also something that, naturally, as you get older and you give fewer and fewer fucks, you’re able to care less about being perceived as being nice, and you become more aware of that double standard that you’re talking about. I am a nice person, but that doesn’t mean that I have to always be agreeable and not have an opinion of my own, and I think for a long time, I felt like we just have to always be agreeable or people won’t want to hire you, or blah blah blah. And you know, some of that probably is true, but I think there’s a lot of room between being an asshole who is horrible to work with and being somebody who is going to show up and do their job but also is a real artist, not just a robot. Has opinions and ambitions. It’s going to be more interesting if we have more to talk about and hash through and more opinions. I think I’ve learned a lot more in the last couple of years, to not just accept my ambition but garnered more joy for that. It’s so exciting to finally be able to admit to myself it’s okay to want to say no to something or someone.
Kecia: Because it doesn’t work for you.
Rebecca: It’s not a horrible thing to know what you want either. Not just what you don’t want, but to really say, “I want this.” A lot of that is also just a kind of fear of putting something out there and the fear of failure, of not getting the things you want. It can feel a little bit almost embarrassing to want something. I don’t know what that is, but I guess it’s just vulnerability.
Another thing I thought was so interesting about the show, and so great to see on stage, was having two women fight against what other people wanted them to be—be young, and be innocent, and be this. Don’t sing in the clubs, just sing at church. Which I think is so relevant for women. One of the things I’m always so interested in with actresses is you’re in an industry that tells you a lot, “You’re this type, this is what you do. You should audition for these parts,” how did you both balance that part of the industry with developing as people and artists?
Kecia: Oh my God. I have to say I’ve been professionally working for 32 years, and I say that a lot to remind myself of that, because sometimes it feels like, “What is happening? This is so brand new.” What I found is, over the years, I think the industry has evolved a bit in terms of pigeonholing people.
Rebecca: A bit.
Kecia: Just a bit. There’s been a window that’s open where, just in general, what was thought of as “not my type” as a larger black woman, that now it’s more of a possibility. It has evolved. And being perfectly honest, I think right now, being a black woman is kind of “in.” I don’t know how long that’s going to last. But it’s kind of “in.” Because of that, there seems to be more opportunity. Like I went in for Wicked yesterday. I was the only black woman there. There were plenty of women there, but I was the only black one. It was like, “Okay, things are changing. Things are happening,” you know? This role that I went in for, there’s only been one other black woman who’s played it in the history of Wicked, which is kind of sad to me.
Rebecca: Oy vey.
Kecia: However, it is what it is. I was in the room, so I’m grateful for that. I think Rosetta and Marie were pioneers, and I don’t think they were thinking, “Oh, I’m going to be a pioneer. I’m going to be the first one to do this.” I don’t think they were thinking that way. They were just following their hearts, you know? [And thinking] “I want to make great music. For me to love God, or be spiritual, it doesn’t have to be one kind of music. I can mix and match genres and still love God. That has nothing to do with it.” They were pioneers in that respect. It’s a privilege to be able to play that.
Rebecca: I agree that it has changed, definitely for the better in some ways, and I certainly find that more and more I’m going into these roles that are not specific ethnically, which is nice. What’s tough is so many of them, still, the first word in the description of the character is always something like, “attractive, beautiful, sexy,” something like that. That’s… fine? But it’s a tough thing to navigate. It’s tough because I have self-love, and I also have a lot of love for the variety of women’s bodies and of beauty in women. But I know that I am really hard on myself and really mean to myself a lot about my own appearance. Some days, not so much. But there are little things that hold me back, I think, from being really comfortable with myself sometimes. I think a big part of it is just this job, you know? Especially just going out for more and more TV stuff all the time. It’s not just like, “People don’t care anymore about that.” No. People do.
Kecia: They do. They absolutely do.
Rebecca: Yeah. They do. It’s tough because if I left the business and moved to Berkeley and worked in a coffee shop combo wine bar, I would maybe not give a fuck if I gained a couple more pounds and lived my life. Like, eat whatever I wanted and all that. What sucks is, there’s this half of me that’s like, “Who gives a fuck? I’m me and I love me and I’m going to treat me like I would treat a friend.” But then there’s that voice that’s like, “They’ll never cast you in this character because you’re this weight instead of that weight.” It sucks because that little voice still comes in, you know.
Kecia: We have to fight it.
Rebecca: We do have to fight it. We do have to fight it.
Kecia: We all have to fight it. I was thinking about this, this morning. I was fired from a job because of my weight. I—which I will never do again, I look at it as a learning experience—signed a weight clause.
Rebecca: Oh, hell no.
Kecia: That’s a thing that’s kind of common. I’ve asked around. I don’t know if they’re doing that with men.
Rebecca: Do they still do that with women?
Kecia: I signed it.
Rebecca: But how long ago was that?
Kecia: A year and a half? Two years?
Rebecca: I was just imagining this was earlier on, like 32 years ago.
Kecia: No, baby. I’ve never done it before. I wanted the job. I signed it. I had to be weighed every week by the company manager. I had to be weighed, and there came a point where, after a while, over six months, that I wasn’t being weighed anymore. Now, I remember having a fleeting thought: “I should say something.” But the larger part of me is going, “Well, maybe we’re done,” and, “Please God, let’s be done with this.” Long story short, six weeks went by, I wasn’t weighed, I went on vacation, I came back. They said, “We need to weigh you today.” I got fired from the job on the spot.
Is that even legal?
Kecia: Yes, it is. Because I have a weight clause that I signed. What happened was, they let me do the show that night, and then I got the phone call the next morning at 10:00am that said, “You’re done. Last night was your last show.” Now, in hindsight, I would never do that. I would recommend to anyone that you do not do that. I was thinking this morning about that, and the fact that, had I stayed in that show like I had planned, I wouldn’t have done something really important that happened for me earlier in the year, which was Mother Courage at Classic Stage Company, which also led to this. Because the director here saw me sing somewhere that I was invited to because of Mother Courage. But it’s those kinds of things that we have to, as women and as artists, open up our mouths and say, “You know what? No.” It’s not right. I’m going to scream about it until it stops. Encourage each other to stand firm in that. When I lost that job, I was 12 pounds over the limit, and I said to them, “Well, dock me. Give me two weeks, put my understudy on, dock me.” They said, “Nope. You’re done.” That doesn’t happen to men.
Rebecca: That’s making my skin crawl.
Kecia: It was devastating. I was devastated. I was humiliated. I was embarrassed. I was angry. But I had to work through it and move on. That kind of crap is still real. That was a year and a half ago.
Rebecca: I cannot believe that. I mean I’m literally sitting over here trying to think of the only way I can imagine a weight clause making sense.
Kecia: They said it was for safety. Because it had nothing to do with the role. I wasn’t playing “sexy mama,” I wasn’t having to take my clothes off.
Well, I was going to say the only way that I can think of it making sense is if you’re doing like The Diary of Anne Frank.
Rebecca: That’s what I was thinking, too. Or where you’re playing an anorexic character. But even that, that’s dangerous as hell.
Kecia: We have to speak up. That’s the point. We have to speak up, we have to say, “No, thank you.” We have to question. We have to encourage each other.
What’s something you each think can be done to make things better for women in the industry?
Kecia: I don’t know if I expect the industry to do anything. I expect women to do it for themselves. I think women need to take responsibility for their own rights, and like Rebecca said, recognizing I’m not a robot. I’m an artist. I have an opinion. It’s valid. We can debate. We can disagree. But I’m going to have it. I think, too often women push that down, and it doesn’t help us in the industry when we do that.
Rebecca: Demanding equal pay and all of that. I also think it’s been exciting the last couple of years to be a part of The Lilly Awards, which honor women in theatre. They’ve been having a lot of conversations about gender parity and just being very honest about, this theatre hired this many women directors or this many women playwrights. I think that’s really important, just having the conversation and speaking up about it. Like, “Okay, I’m going to need you to hire more women. I’m going to need you to hire more women playwrights and more women producers and more women directors.” We have to keep calling it out.
Kecia: Yeah, because the industry’s not going to do it.
Rebecca: No. No, no.
Kecia: Much as we say we’re open-minded as an industry and embrace everybody, it’s still like pulling teeth to get things to change in a way that’s positive anymore.
Rebecca: I think another thing we can do is keep creating more work. Writing and getting together with other women and collaborating and having conversations about what we can do to change things. Even if you have no desire to do any other kind of art than be an actor, that’s still enough, but just keep doing your best and having the conversations and demanding the right amount of money for what you do. That’s the way to do it.