By Deborah Bailey,
The East Coast debut of playwright Cheryl West’s “Shout Sister Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock and Roll Trailblazer Rosetta Tharpe, is the poignant and jubilant theatrical journey of a Black woman emerging from the deep, Jim Crow South of the early and mid-20th century to a world-wide stage– all the while keeping her guitar by her side and faith in her heart.
“I love bringing work to D.C. because audiences are receptive and they can intuit love is embedded in the work,” said the playwright about the warm and vibrant reception the play has received since opening night at Ford’s Theatre, on March 15.
The play depicts key scenes in Tharpe’s life, played by actress Carrie Compere. Audiences see Tharpe in her early days of crossing back and forth between faithful service at her local Arkansas Church of God in Christ (COGIC) to hanging out in the juke joints of the rural south, experiencing the rhythm of life during a period in American history when the division between secular and sacred was clearly marked.
When Tharpe travels to New York for an audition, the world soon discovers what those of us in the church already know: Tharpe and so many artists like her through the years have an amazing talent with a sound that touches audiences. Whether she sang “Walk All Over God’s Heaven” at Carnegie Hall or in an Arkansas COGIC church where the denomination was founded, Tharpe’s gift was unmistakable.
“This is remarkable, ” commented Debbie Jackson, a patron of the play. “This production is true to the narrative of Tharpe’s life and the talent is amazing.”
There was clapping, shouting and good old fashioned call and response throughout the night at Ford’s theater as Compere’s commanding talent and contralto range literally channeled Tharpe and left the audience standing on their feet. The entire cast left the audience no choice but to rise in standing ovations throughout the evening.
Compere’s joyous yet tenacious depiction of Tharpe’s journey compels the audience to participate in the play. She demonstrates both a joyful innocence and a tough resilience throughout the scenes that beckons you to find someplace in the evening you can join in.
“I am just thrilled to have this particular show at Ford’s Theatre,” West said. “I just love it when the work makes the audience want to say things, makes them want to cry out and sing along. That’s the most wonderful gift to any writer,” West said.
Today’s Ford’s Theatre has totally transformed – and so have its artistic offerings. The new Ford’s Theatre – yes that Ford’s Theatre, the iconic venue of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, has stepped into the 21st century. It is now the home of productions that are vibrant, transformative and reflective of the culture of new, diverse patrons.
Sheldon Epps, Ford’s Theatre’s Senior Artistic Advisor, and veteran director and writer for both stage and screen is part of the historic theater’s transformation and the creator of the new energy patrons are experiencing. A separate feature with a focus on Epps’ contributions to Ford’s Theatre, and his artistic journey will be featured later this spring.
Shout Sister Shout! is the play to attend this Easter Season. If you are looking for that cathartic experience, that reflective journey through joy and pain that reveals the surface contradictions and ultimately leads to the deeper waters of our faith journeys and our lives – whatever faith you practice; this play will take you there.
While Shout Sister Shout! has no relation to the holiday, its themes of forgiveness and fortitude; renewal and redemption will encourage you to persevere– like Tharpe did–and hold on to that unique song and sound that you offer to the world.
Shout Sister Shout is featured at Ford’s Theatre through May 13.