*Many of you have probably never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but you should definitely know who she is. In the 1930s and 1940s, she made a name for herself with gospel and secular songs, but one of her biggest contributions is also one of music’s best-kept secrets.
Billed by many in the music industry as “the most famous Rock & Roll star you never heard of” and the “Godmother of Rock and Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s story makes its debut onstage in “Shout Sister Shout” on Wednesday, July 26, 2017 at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. It runs until August 20, 2017.
“She influenced people like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis,” said award winning writer of the play, Cheryl West (known for such works as “Jar the Floor,” “Before it Hits Home,” and “Play On).” “She influenced all of these people and while she didn’t get much credit while she was living, I think she really loved music enough and was not necessarily that bitter about it. I’m sure it affected her but she was going to do what she wanted to do in the joy of the Lord and play her music.”
“Shout Sister Shout” is based on the book of the same name by Gayle Wald and is directed by Randy Johnson, who also directed the Tony Award nominated “A Night with Janis Joplin” in 2014.
Cheryl West knew she was in good hands when Johnson asked her to join him. However, she was also drawn to the project because of a few sure things.
“First off she’s a black woman who’s a real badass and trailblazer,” said West. “I love stories about women who against all odds still go and do their art.”
West added that Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s mother played a huge role in her development as an artist and person.
“Here is this woman, who at six years old, traveled with her mother as an evangelist and was called, ‘a pint sized guitar playing miracle,’” said West. “She traveled and did tent revivals. She was always featured even though she was too small to be seen. They even put her on top of the piano. I just loved the idea of what a road she traveled.”
West continued: “She never got much schooling because they were always traveling and her mother left her husband, Rosetta’s father, because it was at a time, and still is in some places, where women could not be called to preach. The mother felt so strongly by the Lord calling her, she left Arkansas and took Rosetta with her. She taught Rosetta the basics on piano and guitar and she just became a virtuoso. She was a child prodigy all because she had this incredible ear for music.”
Playing Tharpe is Tracy Nicole Chapman, who’s known for Off-Broadway and Broadway plays such as “The Lion King,” “Running Man,” “Caroline, and Change,”and “Into the Woods.” She originally auditioned to play Tharpe’s friend but walked away with the title role instead.
“I actually went in for the part of Marie, her friend,” said Chapman. “And they said, ‘You play guitar, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’” They said learn this other stuff and come back on Monday. I ended up getting the part. It was just a shock. It’s been amazing. I’m honored to be offered the role. I just want to make sure I’m doing her justice.”
While Chapman has had large roles before, this is her first real starring role and one of the challenges for her is, “Just finding the journey. I think when you’re playing a smaller part, you still have your journey but it may be for a shorter period of time. But when you’re on the stage that long you really have to have a complete journey that the audience can see. So, I’m making sure I’m finding all of those moments of growth in her character.”
Chapman continued, “Playing the guitar and singing and acting is a challenge. I’ve played guitar onstage and sung but I usually have the sheet music in front of me. This a little different because I am playing a character playing guitar. It’s a lot of fun-definitely a lot of fun playing a rock star.”
West added about Chapman, “She has so much dimension as an actress and such a beautiful voice and smart and wants to tell the story with authenticity. I just haven’t been disappointed. I learn from the actors too. So what they bring into the room helps me refocus, revise, and restructure things. And she’s been an incredible contributor and collaborator.”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel and secular hits in the late 1930s and 1940s included “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “The Man and I,” “The Lonesome Road,” “Shout Sister Shout” “Down by the Riverside,” “This Train,” and “Strange Things Happen Every Day.”
It was the song “That’s All” that caught the eye of soon-to-be rock stars and other music legends because it is the first recording that Tharpe played the electric guitar on. While artists like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix, Johnny Cash, and some others have acknowledged her at some point, she is still mostly unknown to the general populace. West hopes the recent works on Sister Rosetta Tharpe will catch the eyes and ears of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“That’s a sort of quiet dream of mine giving her the recognition,” said West. “It started with the book, some of the documentaries, and hopefully with the show-will be an impetus because she deserves to be among the greats.”
“Shout Sister Shout” runs at the Pasadena Playhouse from July 26, 2017 through August 20, 2017. For tickets, go here. Meanwhile Cheryl West, who also has teleplays and screenplays under her belt, is working on a BET series with Robert Townsend. She is also scripting a play set in the 1960s about voting rights and the integration of a white fraternity that will open in Seattle, Washington.
EUR BONUS COVERAGE …
Check out the real Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing guitar and singing “Didn’t It Rain” live in Manchester, England in 1964: