Tharpe, who was buried in an unmarked grave in 1973, is experiencing something of a renaissance. She was the subject of the biographical drama “Marie and Rosetta” at Mosaic Theater in 2018, the same year the musician was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2019, her memory was honored at a Pyer Moss fashion show in New York. And last summer, Tharpe was name-checked by Beyoncé in her song “Break My Soul (The Queens Remix).” There is rising interest in both Tharpe’s musical style and her sexuality, with many calling her an LGBTQ icon.
“Shout” details the life and career of the Arkansas native, known in the 1930s and 1940s for crossing over from gospel to secular music while shredding on her Gibson Les Paul electric guitar — ultimately inspiring the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Johnny Cash, even duckwalking before Chuck Berry did. And yet, as Wald says in a phone interview, the trailblazer’s impact was overshadowed in the 1970s by “skinny White boys.”
“There’s a tremendous change in the public perception of where rock-and-roll comes from, and who embodies it, who a rock god is,” Wald says. “There’s a way that Rosetta Tharpe is really invisible in that narrative, particularly as a Black female artist.”
Tharpe’s defiant blend of sanctified lyrics and secular sounds in songs like “Didn’t It Rain?” and “Up Above My Head” made Tharpe an enigma in her time. West, the playwright, says she saw the potential for a show as soon as she read Wald’s book — almost from the empowering title of the book alone: “Well, imagine [‘Shout, Sister, Shout!’] on a T-shirt,” she says with a laugh.
As an actress, Compere says she rose to the challenge of capturing the indomitable spirit behind Tharpe’s voice, and what she calls the “beautiful, bumpy ride” that was Tharpe’s life, noting that Tharpe endured misogyny, racism and even shunning by her church for performing in such “sinful” venues as New York’s Cotton Club and Washington’s Griffith Stadium as she spread “love through music.” In preparing for the role, the actress says, she carried a guitar around constantly, as Tharpe did, to learn how the musician “communicated through it.” Compere’s greatest frustration? Only that it took her so long to discover Tharpe.
“After I booked the role, obviously I dove in headfirst in who this woman was and what she did,” Compere says. “It was empowering to learn about her, but also disappointing that I had not known who she was. … She’s not at the forefront of conversations when we talk about Black history, and specifically Black people’s contribution to music in the world.”
Due to the lack of recorded interviews with Tharpe, Compere says, she sought out YouTube videos of Tharpe’s old performances to find Tharpe’s voice. “There’s hundreds of videos,” she says. “You can go hear her sing. You can see her in her performative world. … But finding that — the person who’s sitting down with a drink in their hand that just did a performance and their forehead is sweating and their wig is off, you know? What are those conversations? What did she sound like in those spaces?”
Wald says she also imagined those conversations when she conducted interviews for her biography, particularly in talks with Tharpe’s singing partner of five years (and rumored love interest) Marie Knight. Although Knight rejected such gossip, according to Wald, a professor of American studies at George Washington University, the biographer says she was personally moved by the impact that the singers’ relationship has had on the LGBTQ community.
“A lot of queer-friendly artists like Lizzo and Janelle Monáe will talk about Rosetta Tharpe as a queer female foremother,” Wald says. “To me, it’s less interesting what [Rosetta and Marie] did than [the fact that] there’s a lot of people who see her and they get a lot of inspiration. They see her as a queer performer, and that’s meaningful to them.”
West singles out another formative relationship: the one between Tharpe and her “traditional gospel evangelist” mother. “One of the things that we explore in the story is the challenges for a child who wants another pattern that may go against the values of the mother,” she says. “But Rosetta was very much about bending the rules, finding her own voice. I think, as artists in the world today, that is always going to be the struggle.”
For Compere, making the walls of Ford’s Theatre echo with a joyful noise is the best way to honor her life. “Rosetta doesn’t fit in a traditional theater experience,” the actress says. “She’s going to break the fourth wall. … A part of her performance was being able to connect with people because it was gospel. … She was doing God’s work.”
West emphasizes a different kind of evangelism: the idea that African American history is American history. “I think that in this day and age, we need reminders of how important our people that were the trailblazers are, and what they had to teach us as we go on our own journey,” she says.
To Wald, whose biography has just been republished in a second edition, watching Tharpe reclaim the spotlight has been gratifying. “I really feel like putting Rosetta Tharpe in the place where she has always been — recognizing her place there — really changes the whole thing,” she says. “It not only makes her visible, but it means that the whole story has to shift because she was there.”
Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. (888) 616-0270. fords.org.