The lesser-told story of rock-and-roll trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, based on the acclaimed biography by Gayle F. Wald, written for stage by Cheryl L. West, and directed by Randy Johnson, explores the turbulent life of a musical prodigy. The play brings to the stage and to a new generation a long forgotten African American pioneer in American music history.
Sister Tharpe gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with gospel recordings characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and the electric guitar. Among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm and blues and rock and roll audiences, she is referred to as “the original soul sister” and “Godmother of rock and roll.”
She influenced greats such as Elvis, and Chuck Berry’s skipping across the stage with a guitar move, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Eric Clapton. In 1969, she received a Grammy nomination, the Unites States Postal Service issued a 32-cent commemorative stamp to honor Tharpe in 1998; Philadelphia declared Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in 2008, and she was inducted into the much coveted Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Banter between Rosetta and her flamboyant manager kept the audience roaring in laughter, just as quick as the pain of domestic abuse brought the audience to a gasp.
At Fords Theater, the moment the stage lights came up, the audience was captivated by Sister Rosetta’s larger than life statue gliding onto the stage in a long purple sequin dress strumming the strings of a guitar and filling the room with her commanding voice. The audience instantly responded with clapping and swaying to the music.
Playwright West begins this soulful story with an eager reporter from Chicago hoping to interview Tharpe after a performance. The reporter inquiries about the artists who influenced her style.
She quickly reacts to his question with a smirk then gazes over the heads of the audience.
Memories of years past come through her eyes. The stage is instantly transformed into her childhood home in Cotton Plant, Arkansas where little Tharpe is singing and playing the guitar with family members on a farm.
Her mother, Katie Bell Atkins, who was also a singer and deaconess missionary, stands by in awe of her daughter’s gift. Encouraged by her, Tharpe joins her mother in a traveling evangelical troupe.