port of harlem magazine
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Shout Sister Shout: A Bio-Musical That Gives You a Good Reason to Shout

Apr 06 – Apr 19, 2023

sister rosetta tharpe

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.

“Shout Sister Shout” gives the audience a healthy dose of sugar and spice: foot tapping music, amazing choreography, glittering costumes, and a stage that at moments resembled a Sunday morning Baptist praise and worship service. The audience was encouraged to join in with amens and shouting praises. 

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. There are plenty emotional highs and lows, that followed her life from the cotton fields of Arkansas to the Cotton Club in New York City.

Carrie Compere, a seasoned actress, gave an incredible portrayal of Tharpe and the amazing cast brings this story to life. The ensemble plays everyone from members of a church choir to the biggest music artists of the day. West managed to pack everything into two hours, including 25 songs.

The audience watched how Tharpe developed from a shy un-confident, yet talented musician to the outspoken Godmother of Rock and Roll. The performance shows her desires for a love connection through several marriages and her lover and musical partner Marie Knight (played by Felicia Boswell). Rosetta even used a stadium filled wedding to successfully infuse life into her career and followers when her Rock and Roll influence started to wane. 

The finale did not let the audience down. Tharpe’s performance at the famous Cotton Club lit up the stage with Cab Calloway, the Nicolas Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, and both male and female dancers sliding and zipping across the stage with energy and grace, and inspiring the audience into enthusiastic participation. Shout Sister Shout is like a big hot bowl of gumbo: it’s delicious, fills your soul, and has something for every taste.
Note: Playing know until May 13, 2023 at Fords Theater; Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.
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