Posts Tagged Mahalia Jackson

An interview with Jamecia Bennett

“I had no fear of standing up for someone who isn’t able now to do it for herself.”

In the Star Tribune review, Chris Hewitt writes, “anyone who has seen Jamecia Bennett, lead singer of Sounds’ of Blackness, in theatrical productions has probably had the sense that we’re only getting a part of her… Here, the gloves are off and Bennett delivers a musical performance of raw searing power.”

Park Square’s Lindsay Christensen got to ask Ms. Bennett a few more personal questions about what it was like to bring her own story and values to the production of Marie and Rosetta.


LC: What was your very first memory with music?

Jamecia Bennett

JB: My First memory of music was at 4 years old! My mother, Grammy Award winner Ann Nesby, would sit me at the piano and she would teach me harmony while she played and sang with me! I actually stood on a chair to sing and direct the church choir, as per the reference [in Marie and Rosetta] that Rosetta gives to her standing on a piano so people could see her!

LC: What did it mean to you to step into Sister Rosetta’s shoes?

JB: Stepping  into the shoes of Sister Rosetta meant a great deal. I knew that I was gonna have to be responsible to tell and sell her story in and hour and thirty minutes to people that may or may not have an idea of who she was! Learning her background and how she moved, who she had in her atmosphere, to me determined how I would deliver my lines. Straight to the point but knowing that she was raised by her mother so she had a nurturing side about her as well. But knowing first that I had to know the power of her music and what it meant to her.

LC: Did you have any fear or nerves?

JB: I didn’t have any fear… now I did have a pause in time when i saw how many lines in the show I had! LOL! But I had no fear of standing up for someone who isn’t able now to do it for herself.

Jamecia Bennett as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

LC: What was the biggest challenge about bringing her to life?

JB: The biggest challenge of bringing her to life was rehashing all of the memories of my now passed on grandmother, Shirley Bennett, who spoke of her and Mahalia Jackson often. So some of the songs it’s hard to get through. But Rosetta is a straight shooter and to hear all of what she had to go through with the church, men, and just by being black and a woman in that time was kinda hard. So finding the right momentum of each song , the lines spoken and the playing of her guitar had to be consistent homework because it had to look real. If one of the three strong things mentioned was off, it would draw attention to it and take away from the message I was trying to present and the hardworking performer she was!

LC: If Rosetta was alive, what do you think her reaction would be to music today, especially given the negativity she faced toeing the line between secular and church music?

JB: I think she would be a force still. Nothing could stand in her way. I believe she would be respected much on the lines of Aretha Franklin. Which I may add, Aretha dealt with the same circumstances. Rosetta would be the Queen of Rock and Roll alive as she is now passed on.

Jamecia Bennett as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Background: Rajané Katurah Brown. Photo by Terry Gydesen.

LC: Can you share an experience you’ve had of people coming together around – or being moved by –  the power of music or theatre?

JB: I’ve had plenty of experiences with people being moved with theatre and music especially with this show. To see the faces of people in the audience crying when they hear one of the songs in this show I sing, “Look Down The Line,” lets me know that love and loss doesn’t have a color. We all bleed the same color blood. I love to hear the harmony of laughter together at the monologues whether it be race sensitive or not. We get the opportunity to laugh and cry together.

LC: What is one thing, or a single word, you hope audiences take away after seeing Marie and Rosetta?

JB: Whether it’s suffering or celebration it’s all about Joy! 

Learn more about Jamecia Bennett at www.jameciabennett.com, and at www.soundsofblackness.org. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram @jameciabennett.

Rajané Katurah Brown and Jamecia Bennett. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

MARIE AND ROSETTA runs through December 30. Matinee added Sat, Dec 29 at 2:00 pm. Buy tickets here.


Lindsay Christensen Park Square’s Group Sales and Development Associate and a fierce freelance stage manager and graduate student pursuing a degree in Arts and Cultural Management at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. 

Godly vs. Worldly: the competing forces of Sister Rosetta’s musical rise

GODLY VS. WORLDLY:

THE COMPETING FORCES OF SISTER ROSETTA’S MUSICAL RISE

by Morgan Holmes, dramaturg for Marie and Rosetta

It’s easy enough to look at Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s life and conclude that her innovative, genre-bending musicianship was “ahead of its time.” How else could such a public and internationally beloved figure wind up buried in an unmarked Philadelphia grave? But – much like our own pop stars who burn brightly, then fizzle out with fans as they experiment with sounds, personas, and public identities (Taylor Swift’s varied success in pop and political crossover, for example) – Tharpe’s career was precisely the product of her time. Throughout her rise, she was activated by and reactive to the sanctity and secularism that marked her world.

THE DELTA BLUES MIGRATE NORTH

The same beat that Black folks dance to on Saturday night is the same beat that they shout to on a Sunday morning” -Reverend Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel

Jamecia Bennett as Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Increased opportunity of industrialization in the north, as well as the promise of better treatment, drew 1.6 million African-Americans north from the 1910s to the Depression, in the first period of black urbanization dubbed the Great Migration. Among the millions, evangelist missionary Katie Bell Nubin left her husband and sharecropper past in rural Arkansas in the early 1920s, to move her daughter, Rosetta, north to Chicago. The migration also brought north the artistry and improvisation of the delta blues, where it coalesced with the call-and-response format of Negro spirituals, birthing gospel. Gospel Chicagoans Mahalia Jackson’s vocal stylings reminiscent of Bessie Smith, and Arizona Juanita Dranes, who used her piano as an extension of her voice rather than its traditional use as an accompaniment to the soloist or choir, influenced Tharpe’s own guitar-picking and singing.

THE CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST’S INFLUENCE

make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise” -Psalm 98:4

Jamecia Bennett as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Rajané Katurah Brown as Marie Knight

Sprung from the roots of the Holiness movement, which avowed outward displays of holiness like modest dress, sobriety or “clean living,” and avoiding worldly activities, the Pentacostal denomination Church of God in Christ (COGIC) spread like wildfire across the South, traveling north with the Great Migration. Music as an outward expression of faith was also a tenet of COGIC worship. This tenet influenced the gospel sound – a loud, joyous, testimonial sound. Tharpe began her own career performing at Chicago’s Fortieth Street COGIC and touring COGIC circuit with her mother and first husband, preacher Thomas Tharpe.

 

 

 

SWINGING THE GOSPEL

Even though I was just a child, I knew immediately that this woman was playing a different kind of music. It was gospel, but the way she put it across, in her bluesy-jazzy style, was a real ‘revelation’ […] a real ‘bad’ groove.”

-Singer Etta James, Heart & Soul: A Celebration of Black Music Style in America, 1930-1975

By the time blues pianist Thomas A. Dorsey codified the genre through his sheet music publishing company, Tharpe had already begun innovating gospel further. Whether disillusioned from the restrictions of poverty, her abusive first marriage, or the conservative COGIC, she traded the sanctified audience that nurtured her for commercial success on the Harlem club circuit, where she hobnobbed with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and big bands like Cab Calloway’s. Unsurprisingly American pop music’s syncopated groove crept into her gospel, as evidenced by her 1938 Decca hit “Rock Me,” a secular version of Dorsey’s “Hide Me in Thy Bosom.” Swinging the gospel won her a mainstream audience but came with its own restrictions, like singing in low-brow vaudeville, burlesque and minstrel revues at the white-only Cotton Club. At the clubs, the testimonial spirit of gospel was mocked, satirized, and whitewashed in “Saint and Sinner” acts. Yet Tharpe stuck to her faith, walking the ambiguous line between spiritual and secular – sometimes successfully, sometimes at the cost of her career.

Coming Next: Mississippi in 1946: the hazards Sister Rosetta faced traveling in the south.

Marie and Rosetta is on stage now through Dec 30, starring Jamecia Bennett and Rajané Katurah Brown. Tickets available at parksquaretheatre.org or 651.291.7005.

Morgan Holmes is an all-around theatermaker – writing, directing, dramaturging and administrating across the Twin Cities. She is most interested in identity, ritual, intimacy, and internet culture, which she explores as co-creator of Perspectives Theater Company.