When I think of rock ‘n roll, I think about the legends like Mick Jagger or Elvis Presley. I don’t think about a black woman from Arkansas playing gospel music with an electric guitar. And I’m sure the average person doesn’t either. But the newest play being shown at the Seattle Repertory Theater showcases this woman—who pioneered the way for these later legends.
Shout Sister Shout!, written by Cheryl West, showcases the talents and achievements of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a black woman who is considered the “godmother of rock ‘n roll”. Sister Rosetta, played by Carrie Compere, was born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, but the play begins in 1962 behind the scenes of a televised performance of a Sunday special. The show soon flashes back to 1933 when Rosetta is eighteen and singing in her mother’s church. As the show progresses, the audience follows Sister Rosetta’s life from her husbands, to her performances, to her gains and losses of both friend and family relationships, and her own personal journey.
As the audience sees Sister Rosetta’s adult life progress, they also follow her own personal journey of self-growth and self-discovery. When you see her at the age of 18, she is deeply connected with God through the church and through gospel music. The setting reflects this as a giant, glowing cross is suspended from the ceiling and the congregation (played by the ensemble) sits in chairs facing the pastor delivering his sermon with the help of the musical accompaniment. However, after the pastor Rosetta marries hits her and has an affair, Rosetta realizes he isn’t a true man of God and packs up her life and moves to New York City to perform at the Cotton Club, leaving behind her mother, who is her biggest inspiration and best friend. When she gets there, she realizes this new lifestyle is nothing like her life back home in Arkansas—the conservative church community is suddenly replaced by a raunchy, artistic community centered around rock ‘n roll and the blues. After getting an agent, Rosetta starts recording songs, keeping the original gospel lyrics but changing her tune to be a little more “with the times”. The classic gospel songs she and her mother used to sing, “I Want A Tall Skinny Papa” and “Down By The Riverside,” to name a few, become more rock ‘n roll-y as Rosetta replaces her acoustic guitar for an electric one. However, this change in style is not welcomed by the church members, which becomes clear to Rosetta when she is shunned and called out in church by the congregation, saying that she can’t be true to the word of God if she’s not playing gospel music. This is echoed by her mother, who tells Rosetta that rock ‘n roll is the devil’s music, and she won’t support Rosetta’s career if she’s not playing gospel music. Rosetta loses this relationship with both the church and her mother, but she learns to stay connected to God and the things she cares about through her own personal prayer and mind. She believes that if rock ‘n roll was the devil’s music, God wouldn’t have created it.
The play continues telling the story of Rosetta’s life, through her complicated relationship with Marie Knight, her performing partner, and her agent’s desire to keep her in the mind of the public. However, as an audience member, the timeline was difficult to follow, as years and ages weren’t frequently mentioned. The story was very intriguing, but lacked clarity in a few places, especially during Rosetta’s touring career both with and without Marie Knight and her relationship with her mother.
What the show lacked in clarity, however, it made up for in intimacy. When Rosetta performed in front of an audience—at the Cotton Club, for example—she interacted with the audience of the play as though they were watching the live performance itself, not just a showing of it. Rosetta asked how the audience was doing, what they felt like, and thanked them for coming to see her show. Compere’s shyness as Rosetta interacts with the audience, completely melts away as she starts to sing and for a moment, the audience forgets they’re watching a play, not watching Rosetta’s actual performance in 1938. This meaningful connection, imprinted in audiences’ minds and made them feel like they were truly experiencing Rosetta’s life.
Through lots of ups and downs, Rosetta comes to realize that all she needs to be happy is herself, God, and love in any form, from herself, a woman, a man, or God. In the end, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s journey was not an easy one. But her life does make for one hell of an interesting play.