He looks like he can carry a tune, but he’s white.
~ Sister Rosetta answers GOD on what she thought of the young prodigy.
Singer extraordinaire Little Richard was wrong when he declared himself as the architect of rock ‘n’ roll. That title belongs to blues/gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her combination of R&B and gospel was both unheard of and a pleasing sounding alternative. Before the late Ray Charles infused genres of music, Rosetta did it in her early teens. The diminutive rising star, publicized as a “singing and guitar playing miracle,” would croon with all of her heart and soul in front of an audience.
Let’s start with the music. Everything is impeccably sharp and perfect. If you need to get out of your funk put on a Sister Rosetta cd and feel the tension in your back, head or wherever the pain is and feel it melt away. From the first song, “Four or Five Times,” to the last and in between, the music was on point and will keep the soul from settling. Sister Rosetta (the marvelous Tracy Nicole Chapman) is in a personal crossroads. She’s 19 and cute and getting some recognition. GOD demands, let’s face it GOD doesn’t ask he demands, that Rosetta be a caretaker to a future musical star Isaiah (Logan Charles does a great job as the newbie on the rise). A majority of that recognition is from the Reverend Thomas Thorpe (Michael A. Shepperd) who has decided that they should be married. Her mother Katie Bell (Yvette Cason) also a performer, agrees. The pastor is secretly jealous of Rosetta’s new-found fame and believes that marriage will tame her. That man was so embarrassingly wrong. At first, she tries the housewife thing, but the music continues to draw her in until she’s one hundred percent hooked. The only thing she took away from that marriage was her new stage name—Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
In between guarding Isaiah, who she grows fond of and affectionately calls him Sweet Biscuit, and working on her marriage, Rosetta takes the audience on a journey of her life. She remembers fondly picking up a guitar at age 4 and traveling and playing with her mama before settling in Chicago in the mid-1920s. Isaiah shows no interest in Rosetta and often tells her. He wants to get out of this dream, more like a vivid nightmare, he’s sucked into. Rosetta fiercely answers, “This isn’t a dream. This is my life,” before continuing on her journey. She speaks briefly on her marriage and how she merged her last name with his and came up with “Tharpe.” It is clear that he’s suppose to be her main priority. Being married so young and moving into a, literally, a stranger’s home, can be a traumatic event. But she survived.
Sister Rosetta should be considered as the first crossover star. Her combination of gospel and blues tinged with rock influenced the greats which include: Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Little Richard himself. She played Carnegie Hall and The Apollo Theater in New York and the Grand Ole Opry in Tennessee. Like most black performers she was greatly loved in Europe and treated like royalty.
The show moves at an even pace going from one song and action to the other without breaking the steady flow. Chapman played Sister Rosetta as a strong woman who doesn’t take any nonsense from no damn body. It’s clear that Isaiah doesn’t know the treasure he has until she performs and is amazed by her style and talent. Cason does a superb job as Tharpe’s mother and as the great gospel maven Mahalia Jackson. There’s a little competition between Jackson and Tharpe regarding another great singer, Marie Knight, who like Tharpe blended R&B music with gospel. Sister Rosetta invited Knight to go on tour with her after seeing her perform in Harlem with Mahalia Jackson. They got along great. Jackson had a problem with artists blending the two music styles. Rosetta won that battle.
Chapman was wonderful as Sister Rosetta. She brought out a positive and moving energy that is unshakeable. If people never heard of Sister Rosetta, they would be in the know of this great artist. Chapman is funny, witty, classy, plays a mean guitar and best of all brings out Sister Rosetta candor with finesse and clarity. “You saved my life,” said Isaiah. Finally! The child has come to his senses. He understood why GOD had chosen Sister Rosetta to guide him on a spiritual journey that served them both. She was the Virgil to his Dante. She’s the reason why Black Girls Rock!
Shout Sister Shout plays until Sunday, August 20th at 2 p.m., Wednesday – Friday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Special note: there will be a performance on Tuesday, August 15th at 8 p.m. and NO Sunday 7 p.m. performance on August 20th, playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, located at 39 S. Molina Avenue in Pasadena, California. For ticket reservation, log on to www.pasadenaplayhouse.org call (626) 356-7529.