Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Author Cheryl L. West, working from a biography of Tharpe by Gayle F. Weld, follows the singer-musician's ascent from a childhood spent traveling with her mother, Katie Bell (majestic Carol Dennis), spreading the word at revival meetings, into a marriage to a controlling preacher (Sinclair Mitchell) who doesn't like her stealing the spotlight from him, through juke joints and recording studios to widespread renown. The play includes cameos by Rosetta's famous mentors and friends, including bandleader Cab Calloway, the dancing Nicholas Brothers, and jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
Compere shows how, even at her saddest, Rosetta knew who she was and how she should live her life. Even when she sings at Harlem's Cotton Club or Carnegie Hall, she insists on wearing simply elegant dresses (Alejo Vietti's costume design focuses on jewel tones for Rosetta, in contrast to the skimpy but light-catching silver costumes for the Cotton Club dancers), playing her own guitar and making sure her love of God is at the center of her performance. At the same time, she catches the attention of rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll performers for the way she bends a note and her physical response to the music–for example, doing the "duck walk" before Chuck Berry made it famous.
That said, Compere's rich and riveting voice isn't the only highlight in this production. Dennis sings in a deep, resounding range, as does Kelli Blackwell as reigning gospel queen Mahalia Jackson (a cordial rival of Tharpe). Felicia Boswell brings playfulness and a lighter touch as Marie Knight, who becomes Tharpe's protegee both professionally and personally.
Tim Mackabee has designed a set that seems plain and unobtrusive but comes to life under Alan C. Edwards' lighting design and the onstage appearance of a compact orchestra conducted by Victor Simonson.
Shout Sister Shout! runs through May 13, 2023, at Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-347-4833 or visit fords.org.
By Cheryl L. West
Rosetta Tharpe: Carrie Compere