If you didn’t know that the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll was a gospel-singing black queer woman guitarist with a killer soprano voice named Sister Rosetta Tharpe, well, now you know.
Her guitar genius and eclectic fusion of blues, jazz, gospel, country, rhythm and blues, and rock inspired the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
Once a household name and international superstar in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Tharpe languished in obscurity for decades after the rise of the very artists she inspired. She was only inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Playwright Cheryl L. West and director Randy Johnson are breathing life back into the legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe with their play “Shout Sister Shout!” now playing at Seattle Rep, and based on the 2007 biography of Tharpe by Gayle F. Wald.
It’s a tall order to capture the life of Tharpe. Already a rare enough figure as a black woman guitarist in the ’50s, Tharpe also bucked tradition and broke rules as a woman of faith navigating the tenuous balance between the church and the secular music she loved.
But with a backdrop of a wall of electric guitars and an ensemble cast that plays everyone from members of a church choir to the biggest music artists of the day, West and the play’s crew manage to pack everything into two hours, including 25 songs.
It’s a marvel that the cast of 12 was able to make every costume change and still have breath enough for their powerful vocals. Joseph Anthony Byrd, as Cab Calloway and a Praise Brother, and Christin Byrdsong, as Little Richard and a Praise Brother, were particularly impressive as versatile ensemble cast members zipping around the stage with energy and grace, and inspiring the audience into enthusiastic participation.
Demanding powerful and versatile vocals, proficiency with the guitar and acting chops that can portray Tharpe’s complex character, it would be a challenge for any actress to play Tharpe. Carrie Compere mostly lives up to that challenge. For one, she can seriously sang! And Compere manages to capture Tharpe as a somewhat foolish young hopeful while maintaining enough edge to make it convincing when she becomes the flirtatious, ambitious, no-nonsense woman she develops into during the course of the play.
What sometimes falls by the wayside in Compere’s portrayal, though, is her movement and dynamism during musical performances. While her vocals certainly steal the show, she does not always capture the energy that Tharpe was known for in her performances. At times, her less energetic movement is upstaged by the energy and dynamism of the ensemble cast.
And there is so much energy on that stage.
With the audience encouraged to join in with “Amens” and call and response, shouting praise, and soul clapping along to the songs, the auditorium sometimes feels more like being in a black church on a particularly joyous Sunday.
Faith was such a big part of Tharpe’s life, and West and Johnson do not shy away from that aspect of her life. It’s in the music, on the set, in the costumes, and it is most beautifully embodied in actress Carol Dennis, who doubles as both Katie Bell Nubin, Tharpe’s dutiful and religious mother, and as the famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
Particularly as the loyal Nubin, who was by Tharpe’s side throughout her life, Dennis brings a profundity to the stage that seems to slow the otherwise breakneck pace of the play, grounding the story in Tharpe’s lifelong struggles with faith and love.
Roller-coastering between these quieter scenes meant to capture the more difficult times of Tharpe’s life and the upbeat concerts is a nod to the wild pace of Tharpe’s own career that masked her loneliness much of her time offstage. However, at times, the pacing robs certain scenes of their gravity, such as a moment when Tharpe’s lover and musical partner Marie Knight (played by Allison Semmes) suffers an incomprehensible loss and the audience barely has time to appreciate her pain before the show must go on.
But you can’t stay disappointed for long. When the music starts back up again, the audience is right back to joining in the fun and energy. It’s remarkable that West and Johnson were able to tell a powerful story that not only corrects the record on rock ‘n’ roll, keeps the legacy of Tharpe alive and squeezes in several major figures of the time, but also manages to tell a vulnerable story about a woman’s quest for love — of faith, of music and for herself.
“Shout Sister Shout!” by Cheryl L. West, directed by Randy Johnson. Through Dec. 22; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $17-$88; 206-443-2222, seattlerep.org