Ford’s Theatre’s SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! is a triumphant telling of the life of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, regarded as “one of America’s most influential rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and gospel crossover singers and guitarists.” Director Kenneth L. Roberson’s masterful execution of playwright Cheryl L. West’s book figuratively takes the audience to church.
Tharpe played an important role in the advent of popular music from its roots in folk and gospel to what is now known as rock ‘n’ roll. Despite the fact that few people are familiar with her name today, Tharpe became a musical legend who revolutionized music in the 1930s and ’40s. She also helped lead the women’s movement for sexual and racial equality. West drew inspiration from the biography The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F. Wald.
“Her style has impacted what’s known as rock ‘n’ roll, crossover, gospel, and secular music, and the blend or fusion between the styles that had not been done before in this manner,” said the show’s star, Carrie Compere, in a recent DC Theater Arts interview.
Compere’s Rosetta Tharpe (aka Rosie) was vulnerable off-stage and confident on stage. Examples of this were her subservience to her husband, Reverend Tharpe (the spot-on Sinclair Mitchell), and her traveling preacher mother Katie Bell (the marvelous Carol Dennis).
Compere’s silky voice lifted such numbers as “Can’t Sit Down,” “Rock Me,” and the gospel-infused “On My Way.” The latter had the audience clapping in time with the churchy beat.
Dennis, in her Ford’s Theatre debut, brought gravitas and angst to her role as Rosetta’s disapproving mother, Katie. Dennis’ rendition of “Lonesome Road” was fire. Katie did not like Rosetta playing secular music. “One of the questions our show asks is: Can familial love override a great divide in values?” said West.
Felicia Boswell played Rosetta’s love interest and fellow singer Marie Knight. She was dynamite in her duo with Rosetta, “Didn’t It Rain?”
Throughout this musical’s narrative, Tharpe encountered such Black, historical, and musical luminaries as Cab Calloway (Joseph Anthony Byrd), Mahalia Jackson (Kelli Blackwell), Dizzy Gillespie (Keenan McCarter), and the Nicholas Brothers (Shuriah and Jarran Muse).
Byrd’s Calloway practically flew about the stage like a white-tuxedoed eagle as jazzy music lifted his virtual wings. Shuriah and Muse displayed jazzy hoofing. Choreographer William Carlos Angulo created eye-catching moves for the players. Dance Captain Jessica Bennett no doubt made contributions here.
Mahalia Jackson (i.e., the character) belted out an unforgettable solo in “Going to Live the Life I Sing About.” Kelli Blackwell was impactful in her limited role.
Keenan McCarter was fantastic as Rosie’s friend Dizzy Gillespie. I loved his playful rapport with Compere.
I liked Joe Mallon as Rosie’s manager, Richie. “There’s no one like her [Rosetta],” Richie pointed out.
Conductor Victor Simonson flawlessly led his musicians through the gospel-tinged tunes. Every note landed with masterful precision. Simonson’s expertise as a conductor was evident throughout the show. Music Director Sheilah V. Walker and Orchestrator and Arranger Joseph Joubert contributed here as well. Overseeing the show was Production Supervisor and Ford’s Senior Artistic Advisor Sheldon Epps.
The Scenic Design added to the show’s religious effect. As scenic designer, Tim Mackabee wrote: “The shell of the space is meant to evoke a church. We stylized the components of an old church to make it the emotional space of the show.”
Costume design, lighting design, and sound design, by Alejo Vietti, Alan C. Edwards, and Sun Hee Kil respectively, were good, but not memorable. Those three elements took a back seat to the music, dancing, and acting.
SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! is a touching biographical tribute to a lesser-known musical pioneer. Though you may not learn many details about Rosetta Tharpe’s life, you’ll definitely love the soul within the music.
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! plays through May 13, 2023 (Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.), at Ford’s Theatre, 514 10th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are on sale online and range from $36 to $90. Discounts are available for groups, senior citizens, military personnel, and those younger than age 40. For more information, call (202) 347-4833 or (888) 616-0270 (toll-free).
The production is recommended for ages 12 and older.
COVID Safety: Face masks are strongly encouraged during all mainstage performances for patrons. Ford’s complete COVID-10 Health and Safety plan is here.
Accessibility: Ford’s Theatre is accessible to persons with disabilities, offering wheelchair-accessible seating and restrooms, assisted listening devices, and Braille and large print playbills. Accessible seating is available in both the rear orchestra and balcony sections. More information at fords.org/visit/accessibility.
GalaPro Captioning Services: Beginning March 27, 2023, all performances of SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! will be captioned via the GalaPro Free Closed Captioning Mobile App. GalaPro is available from the App Store or Google Play and allows patrons to access captioning on demand through their phone or tablet device. Patrons can set their phones to airplane mode and connect to the local GalaPro WiFi network before the performance begins. More information at fords.org/visit/accessibility/galapro-captioning.
She talked with that guitar!’: Carrie Compere on playing Rosetta Tharpe in ‘SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!’ (interview by Debbie Minter Jackson, March 10, 2023)
SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!
Book by Cheryl L. West
Based on the biography entitled Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F. Wald
Rosetta Tharpe: Carrie Compere
Richie/Tiny/Ensemble: Joe Mallon
Katie Bell: Carol Dennis
Marie Knight/Ensemble: Felicia Boswell
Reverend Tharpe/Ensemble: Sinclair Mitchell
Leeannie/Showgirl/Ensemble: Nia Savoy-Dock
Neckbone/Lucky Millinder/Ensemble: David Rowen
Cab Calloway/Ensemble: Joseph Anthony Byrd
Nicholas Brother/Levi/Ensemble: Jamal Antony Shuriah
Nicholas Brother/Russell Morrison/Ensemble: Jarran Muse
Showgirl/Usher Nurse/Ensemble: Raquel Jennings
Showgirl/Ensemble: Jalisa Williams
Dizzy Gillespie/Ensemble: Keenan McCarter
Mahalia Jackson: Kelli Blackwell
Swing/Dance Captain: Jessica Bennett
Swing/Fight and Intimacy Captain: Jay Frisby
Swings: Troy Hopper, Jessica Bennett, Jay Frisby, Michael Wood
ARTISTIC AND CREATIVE TEAM
Production Supervisor: Sheldon Epps
Director: Kenneth L. Roberson
Choreographer: William Carlos Angulo
Music Director: Sheilah V. Walker
Orchestrator and Arranger: Joseph Joubert
Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee
Costume Design: Alejo Vietti
Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards
Sound Design: Sun Hee Kil
Hair and Make-Up Design: Charles G. LaPointe
Associate Director and Dramaturg: Tyler Rhodes
Associate Choreographer: Emily Madigan
Associate Music Director: Victor Simonson
Fight and Intimacy Consultants: Jenny Male and Sierra Young