Did a Queer Black Woman Invent Rock and Roll?
Sunday afternoon's post-show discussion of “Marie and Rosetta” posed the question of whether a queer black woman had invented rock and roll. Panelists were queer DC musicians Asha Santee (Facebook, Instagram) of BOOMscat (Facebook, Instagram), Johnny Fantastic (Facebook) of Stronger Sex (Facebook, Instagram), and Rosetta Tharpe biographer, Gayle Wald.
The panelists reflected on the importance of seeing this story told, with the two artists wishing that had known about Rosetta when they were younger musicians. Asha reflected on her own experience as a queer black artist, feeling pained by the erasure of this lineage and angry to hear that Rosetta had been buried without a headstone. Johnny expressed frustration that Elvis and the Beatles are popularly understood as the starting place of rock and roll, particularly given the ongoing appropriation of the work of black and queer artists by the mainstream music industry. A knowledgeable audience member noted that while Rosetta’s grave was not originally marked, she now has a street named after her in Philly. He cautioned dismissing the Beatles entirely, and said that they deserve credit for renewing interest black American soul and blues in Europe, bringing many artists a second career overseas in the 1960s and 70s. Gayle agreed and pointed that Rosetta spent much of her later career touring Europe, a fact the play omitted.
We then discussed other possible creative liberties taken by the playwright, particularly surroundig the exact nature of Marie and Rosetta’s relationship. Gayle recounted how when writing the biography she had tiptoed around it in her many interviews with Marie. While she never wanted to “put a specific word” on their partnership that might not be one Marie would be comfortable with, she eventually directly asked her about their rumored romantic relationship. Marie vehemently denied everything, ended the interview, and kicked Gayle out of her apartment. Given that Marie had a late-in-life career as preacher at that point, she may have been hesitant to admit to something that would likely put her at odds with her congregation.
We ended the discussion reflecting on the various “truths” of the play—which, while possibly different from historical “facts,” still resonate with human truths. We theorized that the play serves as a living memorial: in contrast to a commemorative headstone, it honors memory by capturing—and in some sense, resurrecting—the authentic spirit of the person (echoing the play’s theme of ghosts that appears throughout). Audience members noted that it is still unusual to see so many black women musicians playing rock and roll on the stage, and that their performances brought Rosetta into the theatre. I commented that the discussion reminded me of Alice Walker’s search for Zora Neale Hurston’s grave in the 1970s, and her choice to make the bisexual blues singer the spiritual heart of The Color Purple; Gayle added that Janis Joplin had done something similar with Bessie’s Smith’s grave. (All of these women were, notably, bisexual). We discussed how the play dramatized these lineages and the tensions between the sacred and secular in the black community through Rosetta’s unwavering relationship with God. Whatever the “true” relationship between the two women, the piece depicts Rosetta’s talents as enhanced by her spiritual faith and joy, opening up space for a queerness and religion to coexist in music. Asha ended the discussion by once again commenting how important it was for people to hear Rosetta’s music and know about these women. We encouraged the audience to spread the word about the performance so that Rosetta and Marie’s story can continue.