Not many academics get to see their work in stage lights. But that’s exactly what happened to the George Washington University’s Gayle F. Wald—which, if you ask her, is testament to the vibrancy of the woman at its heart. Blues-rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe is almost too compelling not to be a protagonist.
“She’s over the top, she’s flamboyant and she’s not apologetic,” said Wald, a professor of English and American studies in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
“Shout Sister Shout!”, playing through May 13 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., is a musical adaptation of Wald’s “Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Published in 2007, it was the first biography of Tharpe, whose gospel background and electric signature style directly influenced popular music stars like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bonnie Raitt.
“What Gayle’s book does so beautifully is give you a context for Rosetta's life in terms of history and what else was going on during those times,” said Cheryl L. West, the playwright who adapted “Shout, Sister, Shout” for the stage.
For decades, Tharpe was almost forgotten by the popular culture she helped shape. But among her fans, she was always well remembered. In his induction speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, Cash remembered Tharpe as one of his earliest heroes. Chuck Berry, sometimes called the “father of rock and roll,” is said to have called his whole career “just one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.”
Yet in the 1990s, when Wald first saw a video of Tharpe, she was amazed at the dearth of available information about the woman whose performance stood out so forcefully to her.
“How can this person not have come across my radar?” Wald remembered wondering. As a scholar of American music, she was at least aware of most popular music stars of Tharpe’s evident star power and contemporary profile. Yet Tharpe herself was an enigma. Wald assumed there would be scholarship about her, but aside from brief mention in gospel histories, there was very little. If she wanted to read a biography of Tharpe, Wald would have to research and write it herself.
And Wald knew Tharpe’s was a story that needed telling. “The second I saw her, something in me knew,” she said.
“Shout, Sister, Shout” received critical acclaim and sparked a resurgence of interest in Tharpe’s music and life. Born in Arkansas in 1915, Tharpe developed her signature style as a child performer at Pentecostal churches and tent revivals across the South. When she later embarked on a secular career, the bluesy gospel of her youth still influenced her performances. While Tharpe’s popularity in the United States peaked in the 1940s, her star continued to rise abroad—particularly in the United Kingdom, where she continued touring successfully for many years. Yet at the time “Shout, Sister, Shout” was published, Tharpe was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia.
“So, so much has happened since then,” Wald said.
“Shout, Sister, Shout” helped raise Tharpe’s visibility, and she only needed visibility to become a mainstream icon as well as a niche one. A headstone was finally erected over Tharpe’s grave in 2009. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. In online circles, she became the “queer Black woman [who] invented rock and roll.” (Wald discussed the “meme-ing” of Tharpe and her own struggles writing conclusively about Tharpe’s sexuality in a 2020 article.) And in 2015, Broadway producer Randy Johnson approached Wald about optioning “Shout Sister Shout!” for the stage.
Eventually, playwright West joined Johnson in developing the show. She’d read “Shout, Sister, Shout” years earlier, and thought Tharpe’s story was “a captivating idea for a musical.”
But with little direct information from Tharpe about her own inner life—no journal or diary, few personal interviews—the adaptation process was necessarily imaginative. West drew on her own experience as a Black woman and an artist, extrapolated into the world in which Tharpe lived. “My job as a dramatist is to find an emotional story, an emotional context and story arc,” she said. “What would it be like to travel in her skin and be an artist at that time? What might she have felt going through some of the challenges, the conflicts, as well as the joys?”
For her part, Wald was struck by the iterative, collaborative process of building a musical. Though she wasn’t directly involved, only making herself available to answer questions from the theatrical team, she loved watching the imaginative process, grounded in history, by which actors, writers, directors and musicians created “behind-the-scenes” moments for Tharpe the character. West’s script explores, for instance, whether Tharpe’s slight speech affectations might be the attempts of a woman raised in Arkansas to fit in by emulating the East Coast clip she would have heard on the radio.
“As a biographer, I had certain guardrails,” Wald said. “So to see this creative agency applied to her has been so thrilling and fun.”
The show premiered at California’s Pasadena Playhouse in 2017, was overhauled for a Seattle Rep production in 2019 and went on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic before coming to Ford’s this month.
To see Tharpe brought to life onstage is “kind of an out-of-body experience” for Wald. She is embodied by Carrie Compere, a performer the Washington Post calls “electrifying” who first played Tharpe in Seattle.
Compere is “just a phenomenon,” Wald said. “She’s not doing an impression, it’s not overdetermined, but she evokes [Tharpe] in the way she holds herself, the way she holds a guitar.”
Most of all, Wald said, she’s happy to see Tharpe’s life and art celebrated. Beacon Press published a new edition of “Shout, Sister, Shout” in January, blurbed by pop superstar Lizzo. Tharpe appears as a character in Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic “Elvis”—a high profile pop culture shoutout that would have been unthinkable two decades ago.
“I have a friend who’s teaching a course on the history of rock and roll, and I guess her students were introduced early on to Rosetta Tharpe, so now any time they read virtually anything written about rock music from before 2020 they're like ‘Dude, where's Rosetta?’” Wald said, laughing. “Knowing about her affects the stories that we tell about American music.”
“Shout Sister Shout!” runs at Ford’s Theatre through May 13. Visit www.fords.org for tickets.