We’ve all heard of Elvis Presley, so why haven’t more folks heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
The musical “Shout Sister Shout!” aims to educate the unenlightened at D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre, now through May 13.
“This was a huge revelation,” actress Carrie Compere told WTOP. “I had no idea who this woman was, where she came from and her impact and influence, not just on American music but on world music history.”
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a Black queer musician born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, on March 20, 1915,” Compere said. “We definitely dig into some of her music, but even more so we dig into who she was, her humanity, the flesh and bone of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, where she came from, her life and journey. … It spans about four decades.”
“The first time I heard her name, I was on the first national tour of ‘Shrek: The Musical.’ Our cast went to visit Graceland in Memphis … and there was a distinguished-looking older white gentleman [who] mentioned her name as an influence of Elvis,” she added.
The play was adapted by playwright Cheryl L. West from Gayle F. Wald’s book ‘Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.’ The story charts Tharpe’s journey from young adulthood, all the way to her death at age 58. It also details how she became one of America’s most influential (and underrated) rock, R&B and gospel artists.
Compere originally auditioned for the supporting role of Mahalia Jackson, and was surprised when the casting director asked her to stay and read for the lead role of Tharpe. It’s safe to say that Jackson and Tharpe paved the way for the gospel-pop crossover artists that followed, from Aretha Franklin to Amy Grant.
“She was one of the first people to bring sacred music to secular venues, who many consider to be the godmother or queen of rock ‘n roll,” Compere said. “She was a guitarist and a vocalist. What set her apart from so many during that time was that her style of playing and singing was so different from what had been done up until that point.”
Music director Sheilah V. Walker teams with choreographer William Carlos Angulo to stage an array of energetic musical numbers, including “Four or Five Times,” “How About You,” “Precious Memories” and “Sit Down.”
“The show is full of music that people know and love, and music that some people have never heard before,” Compere said. “There are songs that are going to be brand new to their ear, but it’s still going to be a little familiar.
“Whenever I tell people to come see the show, I always say, ‘Come see a woman that you never knew you already knew,’ because when you hear the music, you’re like, ‘Oh wait! This is where this comes from!'”
Director Kenneth L. Roberson works with scenic designer Tim Mackabee and costume designer Alejo Vietti to recreate American period visuals from the 1930s through 1970s on the historic stage of Ford’s Theatre.
“You’re definitely seeing things that are true to [the] period, even down to a little lipstick pack,” Compere said. “They have really paid attention to detail when it comes to the costuming, the wigs, the makeup, the furniture, the microphones that are set up, it’s all very much true as we could be to the time.
“A lot of it is about Rosetta’s memories so we jump through time, sometimes at lightning speed, but at a pace that is digestible for the audience.”
In the end, she hopes audiences walk away aware of this uniquely American legend who was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, alongside Nina Simone, Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits and The Moody Blues.
“The fact that I did not learn anything about her until my adulthood, it was a little saddening,” Compere said. “She really was not given her due. … She died in Philadelphia and her grave was unmarked for about 30 years. It blows my mind, but now she has a beautiful tombstone and her name is being spoken so much more now than ever before.
“I’m really blessed and proud to be part of this movement, this resurgence of bringing her name back to the forefront.”
“Shout Sister Shout!” runs at Ford’s Theater until May 13, 2023. For tickets or more information, visit its website.