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The road to fame is never easy, but Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s trek had its foundation in faith, sincerity and love. “Shout Sister Shout!” the musical about Tharpe, is at Ford’s Theatre until May 13. From opening scenes, Tharpe, beautifully played by Carrie Compere, enlightens a young reporter about the successful artists she influenced. Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis were rock and roll superstars who adopted Tharpe’s music style.
“Shout, Sister, Shout!” tells us that Tharpe’s rock and roll foundation stayed rooted in gospel music. She pioneered bringing sacred music into secular venues. The guitar became Tharpe’s companion, and she developed a unique playing style that grew her popularity. At first, Tharpe did not understand what was happening, but her career trajectory was set. Of course, that put Tharpe’s stage and personal life under scrutiny.
“She laid out a blueprint for her life when no one had come before her,” Compere said about her character in an interview with the Washington Informer. “Living as a queer Black woman where her music was appreciated and stolen was a big challenge.”
Tough Life Led to Heartbreak
Compere, along with Carol Dennis, who portrays Katie Bell Nubin, Tharpe’s mother and several other cast members, were in regional productions of “Shout, Sister, Shout!” before coming to Ford’s. The high level of synergy among the cast was obvious. The mother-daughter relationship between Compere and Dennis could be felt. It was a “tug and pull” between the two characters as Tharpe grows into her own, and her mother tries to understand. Tharpe and her mother were estranged for a while.
‘“I call her ‘Mama Carol.’ We already had great chemistry,” said Compere about Dennis. “I was so grateful to hear that she was going to be in this production.”
Tharpe was married three times and, at one point, fell in love with gospel pianist and singer Marie Knight. Knight was Mahalia Jackson’s accompanist. Through it all, Richie, Tharpe’s manager for most of her career, kept the singer on track. Richie always had Tharpe’s best interest in his sight and was excited about new ideas to position his client. That role was played enthusiastically by Ford’s veteran Joe Mallon. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, played by Keenan McCarter, was also a friend and supporter of Tharpe. Gillespie would show up at the right time to lift Tharpe’s spirits as they joked with each other.
A Musical with Energy
This is a rigorous production. Except for Compare and Dennis, the cast played multiple roles.
Quick costume changes transition through the times in Tharpe’s life. The production opens with Tharpe as a teen, then on the road as a gospel singer, onto New York performing at the Cotton Club, and then on to other settings on the road. That’s a lot of costume changes, dancing and singing that incorporated a turntable floor on the stage to move through all the times in Tharpe’s life.
“Shout, Sister, Shout!” is performed with a full band. The singing was superb. Church service was held in Ford’s Theatre. Every voice was strong. The dancing is outstanding. Costumes, especially the men’s suits, were sharp. The creative team developed a smoothly-paced musical.
Praises go to playwright Cheryl L. West, director Kenneth L. Roberson, choreographer William Carlos Angulo, music director Sheilah V. Walker, and arranger and orchestrator Joseph Joubert. Ford’s Theatre Senior Artistic Advisor Sheldon Epps served as the production supervisor. The musical is based on Gayle F. Wald’s book “Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”
“Shout, Sister, Shout!” is at Ford’s until May 13. Ticket information is at https://fords.org. To view a sneak preview video check out https://youtu.be/mHlzZeSiCr0