In Ford Theatre’s SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!, Sister Rosetta Tharpe Asks for More than the Standard Biopic Treatment — Review
How do you tell the story of someone who has been erased, discriminated against, and often forgotten? That’s the fascinating yet thorny question one must face when telling the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe was a Black woman in the Southern United States during the early 20th century, who gained massive popularity around the world in the 1930s and 40s with recordings that merged gospel songs with groundbreaking electric guitar production. Watch any archival footage from Tharpe’s performances in the 1960s and you’ll witness a woman fearlessly playing an electric guitar, bursting into wide-ranging melodies in a clarion voice, and shimmering in a sparkling dress. It’s an experience that’s delightful, visionary, and moving.
Being a genius ahead of your time often means a lack of recognition by your peers. This was certainly true for Tharpe, whose sound was appropriated (with little credit) by white musicians to larger commercial success. Historians and artists in the 21st century have attempted to shine a light on Tharpe’s life and music. Tharpe has been the subject of biographies, documentaries, “Drunk History” segments, and she’s even briefly portrayed in Baz Luhramnn’s 2022 film Elvis. These attempts to restage Tharpe’s life (including her 2018 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) often seek to redress the wrongs of history: to center a Black woman who was marginalized in life and in death.
Now comes a revival of SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!, a musical theatre retelling of Tharpe’s life that was first produced in 2017 and is now playing at Washington, D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre. In adapting Gayle F. Ward’s biography of the same name for the stage, playwright Cheryl L. West faithfully retells Tharpe’s life and creates a fully realized portrait of a woman with endless charisma, musicality, and star power. However, it’s the sheer imagination of West’s book—and the opportunities she creates for counter-historical narratives—that makes the standard biopic elements of SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! feel even more conventional.
West opens her story with Tharpe (played by Carrie Compere) in her element, performing “Up Above My Head” in the 1960s during a resurgence in her career. After a journalist asks her questions about her white contemporaries (her response is “Elvis ain’t done nothing that us colored folk didn’t start”), she’s launched into her memories as a young girl performing in the church.
The rest of the show largely unfolds chronologically, as we see the timid Tharpe gain confidence from her encouraging yet critical mother Katie Bell (Carol Dennis), become married to the abusive Reverend Tharpe (Sinclair Mitchell), and eventually make it big as a performer in spaces like The Cotton Club or across the world. The second act follows Tharpe’s growing maturation as an artist along with the disillusionment she feels from both the music industry and the church. We also see her relationships with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (Kelli Blackwell), and most importantly with Marie Knight (Felicia Boswell), a fellow singer who becomes her close friend, co-performer, and even lover.
First and foremost, SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! is a showcase for Carrie Compere. Compere’s performance as Tharpe is so spectacular that she absolutely should be considered a musical equal of Tharpe, and it’s hard to imagine another actress in the role. Compere’s voice is a remarkable instrument that can sustain incredibly long notes, gnarl and growl when needed, and radiate over the audience like a warm glow. It’s among the best singing you’ll find in D.C. right now—not just in theater, but across any medium or venue.
Still, the production asks Compere to hit the same notes (both musically and narratively) too often. Most songs in the show are songs that Tharpe, in real life, performed and made hits. Thus, SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! is a jukebox musical in which songs are performed diegetically, within the world of the show.
Cheryl L. West does successfully transform some songs to function dramatically, such as an upbeat tap-dance number that underscores Tharpe’s rise to fame, or when Katie Bell sings “Precious Lord” as a plea to God that’s both lonely and heartbreaking. However, if you’re looking for the musical theater lyrics that are specific to character and reveal complex inner thoughts, you won’t find them here. It’s often up to the audience to interpret what the poetry and praise of gospel music means to the characters onstage.
At the musical’s best moments, the show feels like attending a concert, with the performers having a delicious rapport with the crowd and encouraging them to have a fun time. Yet this concert staging is used so much that the second act drags from repetition. For example, it’s curious that a number that could’ve been just a quiet piano ballad between Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight has the backing of an entire band off-stage.
That number is also indicative of the reticence to include any explicit queer intimacy onstage. Director Kenneth L. Roberson (perhaps best known for directing Broadway’s Avenue Q) overall does a great job of highlighting the complex, ever-shifting dynamics between women. Roberson brilliantly directs an argument between Tharpe and her mother which unearths generational tensions between commerce and religious morality. Yet when it comes to Tharpe’s queerness, Roberson and West falter by making statements about queerness in dialogue, and not through any significant movement or staging. A seduction scene between Rosetta and Marie ends abruptly, and while the audience can easily imagine what happens next, isn’t the theater the perfect place to stage what was never explicitly documented?
Accounts of Tharpe’s queerness make up a small part of Ward’s biography. Rosetta’s friends only agreed to go on the record anonymously to discuss Tharpe’s sexuality, and the musician Barney Parks only discussed being “intimate” with Tharpe. Still, a theater show is not a biography: the very act of having actors up on a stage re-enacting real life makes what an audience watches at least historical fiction. Because of this necessary translation from real life, theater provides an opportunity to stage counter-narratives, to fill in the gaps or inconsistencies of historical records, to imagine what wasn’t said or heard. Unfortunately, SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! too often brushes up against these opportunities to stage history non-literally and doesn’t explore them further.
At this point, the musical biopic has a strict formula—seen in theater shows like Tina, MJ, and A Beautiful Noise, or in films like Respect and Bohemian Rhapsody. Usually a wunderkind comes from a troubled home life, achieves widespread recognition, becomes a star, falls into drug use/abusive relationships/forgetting who they are/all of these at once, and then performs a triumphant song at the end of the narrative to leave audiences feeling happy. SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! sticks too closely to this formula to achieve anything profound—which is a shame, because if anyone deserves a story told in an original way, it’s a pioneer like Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Since Gayle F. Ward’s Tharpe biography came out in 2007, it’s been Black women who have pioneered new methods of biographical and historical writing. Saidiya Hartman’s landmark 2019 book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval dared to take a theatrical approach to the biography, introducing multiple different Black, queer women in a “Cast of Characters” that each have a spotlight in different chapters. Working off historical materials, Hartman created a rhapsodic account of the early 20th century that was imaginatively creative, not just recreating the archive; her writing is communal, not individualistic.
SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! hasn’t caught up with these narrative innovations, and the musical hews too closely to historical archives to become an imaginative piece of theater. Despite these limitations, Carrie Compere does conjure up that delightful, visionary, and moving experience of watching Sister Rosetta Tharpe in action. Tharpe never truly got her flowers in her lifetime. Compere deserves her flowers, and any musical theater role she wants to play, right now.
SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! Is in performance at Washington, D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre through May 13. For tickets and more information, visit here.