Ford’s Theatre Celebrates Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe
March 23, 2023 @ 12:00pm
Described as “a voice you never knew you already knew,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe will finally have her story shared front and center at Ford’s Theatre through May 13.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe gained popularity in the ’30s and ’40s with her astonishing gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and electric guitar. Her music was said to have influenced such icons as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.
Gayle Wald, an English professor at George Washington University, was intrigued by the story of an African American woman guitar virtuoso and wrote the bestseller “Shout, Sister, Shout!” which tells the story of the rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer.
“I had seen a film with a clip of Rosetta Tharpe,” Wald says. “The image of a middle-aged Black woman in a long conservative dress playing a white electric guitar with a gospel choir behind her like a rock god kind of blew me away. I really wanted to know more about her and why I — and a lot of people — didn’t know about her.”
As Wald discovered more and more about Tharpe’s fascinating life, she knew she had to write the biography, and spent about a decade researching and writing the book until it was released in 2008. A new edition with new information was released in 2023.
“Hers is a fantastic story,” Wald says. “She is not a tragic figure. Her life contains tragedy, but it’s really a path-breaking story about a woman who followed her own path and was a gospel trailblazer.”
Playwright Cheryl L. West turned Wald’s book into a musical, “Shout, Sister, Shout!” which explores Tharpe’s rise to fame amid her daring performances of church music at nightclubs and on recordings.
“When I first read the book years ago, I thought she was such a legend, but people didn’t know much about her and she had this very compelling story,” West says. “I am always interested in unsung heroes who teach us about resiliency and being an artist.”
Her goal, just like Wald’s, was to get audiences to learn about the woman who they called the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“She integrated all kinds of music genres,” West says. “She was a protégé who was playing music at 4 years old. She traveled all over the U.S. and Europe doing her brand of music, and she also felt that she was saving souls. She was very much a Christian woman who saw music as a way of transforming lives.”
The musical made its Washington, D.C. debut at Ford’s Theatre on March 15.
Carrie Compere stars as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a role she originated in 2019 when the show premiered at Seattle Rep.
“It’s exciting for me to bring a voice to this woman who is unsung and has been for such a long time,” Compere says. “She is a beautiful Black woman from Arkansas and the only one doing what she was doing in her time.”
Directed by Kenneth L. Roberson with the production supervised by Sheldon Epps, the show looks at Tharpe’s relationships with her mother, evangelist Katie Bell Nubin (played by Carol Dennis) and her one-time duet partner Marie Knight (played by Felicia Boswell).
Compere not only loves the incredible music and eclectic dance in the show, but is pleased that “Shout, Sister, Shout!” is bringing attention to such a legend in the industry.
“I love telling people that she’s a voice you never knew you already knew,” Compere says. “Her music, influence and handprints are already here and exist in Black history, American history and world music.”
“Shout, Sister, Shout!” runs at Ford’s Theatre through May 13. Tickets start at $36.
Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; fords.org // @fordstheatre
Want first access to select shows and performances around the city? Join the District Fray community to access free and discounted tickets. Become a member and support local journalism today.