Ford’s Theatre Presents ‘Shout, Sister, Shout!’

What becomes a legendary artist most is to be celebrated in the art of subsequent generations. The guitar-playing gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) has recently been portrayed in the film “Elvis.” She’s been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and included in the Smithsonian Institution’s collections. Now her life story in Gayle F. Wald’s book “Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe” is presented as a lively musical on stage at Ford’s Theatre in Cheryl L. West’s musical, “Shout Sister Shout!”

According to, “Shout, Sister, Shout!” explores the story of  “one of America’s most influential rock-and-roll, R&B and gospel crossover singers and guitarists. Ambitious, courageous and uncompromisingly public, Tharpe became a pioneer of the women’s movement for racial and sexual equality and is a musical legend who redefined the national and international music scene in the 1930s.”

Carrie Compere as Sister Rosetta Tharpe opens the show with Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air, ” transforming the theater into a church setting as the audience joins in singing the gospel song. Carol Dennis is Tharpe’s mother Katie Bell Nubin, a traveling evangelist. The divide between the two on the proper venue for gospel music will stretch throughout their lives. As Tharpe moves on up on to performances on public stages and through several marriages, Katie Bell will return with her own lamenting song.

While it’s often noted that many rock-and-roll stars were influenced by Tharpe, (such as Elvis Presley) there are stars from her lifetime portrayed by excellent performers.  To name a few: Joseph Anthony Byrd is Cab Calloway. Tharpe’s appearance with him at the Cotton Club in Harlem in October 1938 represents a significant moment in her career, in singing gospel to a secular audience (and accompanied by scantily-clad chorus girls, disapproved of by many in the gospel community.) Keenan McCarter is her friend, the legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillepsie. Kelli Blackwell is powerful as Mahalia Jackson. Emmy Award-winner Felicia Boswell plays singer Marie Knight who toured with Tharpe in the 1940s.

Covering Tharpe’s life from 1933 to 1974, with almost two dozen classic songs, a great band and dance ensemble and dazzling costumes  — all add up to make this a resounding and inspiring show.

Tharpe has been most remembered for the litany of those musicians who’ve credited her as an influence, Elvis being just one of the many. What’s overlooked is that Tharpe was an innovator in guitar performances on the newly-emergent amplified instruments, a rare distinction of women performers of any time. Throughout the show, Tharpe never lets us forget that even as she sings in secular settings, she’s singing God’s gospel and she’s never without her partner in music, her guitar.

While theater reviews normally talk about what’s on stage, the response of the audience in “Shout, Sister, Shout!” is worth noting. Those who remember hearing Tharpe when they were young,  remarked how true to the original and authentic the music was.  A most fitting piece of musical history — especially during Women’s History Month — to be presented in the historic setting that is Ford’s Theatre.

Shout, Sister, Shout! is playing at Ford’s Theatre through May 13, 2023. For information on the show, go to


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