Shout Sister Shout
Carrie Compere as Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Jamal Antony Shuriah in the musical SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! at Ford’s Theatre through May 13; Credit: André Chung

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We’re born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. It’s a trite, utterly predictable story, even if a vanishingly small percentage of us—gospel-singing prodigy turned proto-rock-and-roller Sister Rosetta Tharpe, for one—create some lasting art along the way.

Lives vary in duration but not configuration, which is one reason biographies are usually better captured in prose than in the time-limited media of stage plays or movies. George Washington University professor Gayle F. Wald’s 2008 book, Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was the first biography of the pioneering musician, though it didn’t arrive until 35 years after her death. It was a monumental volume, bringing renewed attention to a singular artist whose career spanned the 1930s to the early ’70s. 

Tharpe’s notion of playing gospel songs on an electric guitar, and, later, the songwriting chops and distortion-heavy style of rhythmic strumming she developed, made her a pivotal figure in American popular music. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and all the other White boys on both sides of the Atlantic who wanted to write, sing, or shred like Tharpe (some tried to do all three) were in her debt. And they knew it, even if a big chunk of their audiences did not.

Tharpe, who was only 58 when she died in 1973, was a Black woman, and, Wald argues, a queer one. Though she married at least three men during her life—one of them at D.C.’s long-demolished Griffith Stadium, in a July 1951 ceremony/performance attended by 20,000 paying customers—Wald suggests Tharpe’s most significant intimate relationship was with Marie Knight, who toured and recorded with Tharpe throughout the second half of the 1940s. (Tharpe and Knight co-wrote the gospel tune “Didn’t It Rain?,” one of the best-loved numbers in Tharpe’s songbook.)

In 2018, playwright Cheryl L. West, introduced to Tharpe’s work via Wald’s book, adapted the biography as the loose framework for a jukebox musical meant to give Tharpe her due as a boundary-breaker and as an artist. West introduces us to Tharpe in her late 40s, during an interview with the Chicago Defender newspaper. The script then flashes back to her teen years on the road with her traveling evangelist mother, and proceeds to dramatize notable episodes from her life, briefly and bluntly, in a way that registers as little more than filigree between musical numbers. Tharpe was as iconoclastic as artists come, but the formal challenge of compressing 40-odd years of incident into a little over two hours make the results feel familiar despite authoritative performances by the incendiary Carrie Compere in the title role and Carol Dennis as Tharpe’s mother, Katie Bell. (Compere and Dennis previously played these roles in a 2019 run of Shout Sister Shout! at Seattle Rep.) 

Blame Jake Kasdan’s 2007 musical biopic parody, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, for making this sort of dramatic compression even harder to pull off than it was before. I was already chiding myself for this uncharitable way of thinking when I overheard another patron at the press performance say Shout! reminded him of Walk Hard. Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic, Elvis, which featured English singer-songwriter Yola in a brief but memorable turn as Tharpe, used Luhrmann’s signature frenetic editing style to solve some of these familiar biopic problems. 

West’s script tries mightily to give Tharpe her complexity and humanity rather than making this the sort of hagiography bio-plays always threaten to become. Tharpe’s professional rivalry with Mahalia Jackson (Kelli Blackwell)—who cautions Tharpe that “anyone playing gospel with a blues guitar ain’t singing for the Lord”—and her friendship with bandleader Dizzy Gillespie (Keenan McCarter), give her portrait some welcome dimension. But the impact of these moments is blunted by clunkier scenes, like the ones depicting Tharpe’s first marriage, at 19, to a controlling, abusive pastor (Sinclair Mitchell). 

So it’s down to the music, and this music will lift you up. Compere, her castmates, and conductor Victor Simonson’s eight-piece band bring such vigor to Sharpe originals (“Up Above My Head”) and to the standards she made her own (“Down By the Riverside,” “You Gotta Move”) that the didactic bent of the show is easy to dismiss. Hearing these songs performed live can only improve your mood. If the show surrounding them compels you to check out any of Tharpe’s readily streamable Decca Singles compilations, or better still her Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1938-1941), and/or to pick up Wald’s terrific book, then it’s done its job. 

Shout Sister Shout!, written by Cheryl L. West, adapted from Gayle F. Wald’s biography, and directed by Kenneth L. Roberson with songs by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, plays at Ford’s Theatre through May 13. $33–$90.