By Darlene Donloe
Everyone knows Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul, Koko Taylor is the Queen of the Blues, Ella Fitzgerald is the First Lady Of Song and Queen of Jazz, Tina Turner is the Queen of Rock & Roll and Beyonce is the Queen Bae, but very few people are familiar with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, affectionately and accurately called the Godmother of Rock and Roll.
Tharpe’s story and the impact of her music on the industry are brought to life in the world premiere musical, Shout Sister Shout!, set to open at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, July 30.
A noted electric guitarist and legendary gospel singer - Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose hits included Down by the Riverside, This Train, and Strange Things Happen Every Day, was considered a trailblazer in the history of American music. Her music influenced music giants like Tina Turner, Little Richard, Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bob Dylan.
Playing Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Shout Sister Shout! is Broadway veteran Tracy Nicole Chapman, whose credits include: The Lion King, Little Shop of Horrors, Into The Woods and Caroline, or Change and more. Chapman, a married mother of two, lives in Los Angeles with her family.
|Tracy Nicole Chapman|
I recently caught up with Chapman (TNC), best known for originating the role of Shenzi in the Broadway production of The Lion King, to talk about the show and her career.
DD: Talk about how and when you first became acquainted with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s music. Also, as a singer yourself – talk about your impressions of her, her music and her guitar prowess.
TNC: She was fierce. I first heard of her about 20 years ago. I’m a guitar player. I wanted to find every African American woman I could, who played guitar. I think Tracy Chapman was out at that time and so was Joan Armatrading. I listened to Sister Rosetta play. I wanted to find others. That's how I first heard of her. I found out she influenced some people like Elvis, Little Richard, in fact, Rock n’ Roll - period. I also read the book.
DD: What are your impressions of her?
TNC: She was a beast. She had her own style. She was confident. Her finger-picking was flawless. She was fearless - not afraid to try something new. No one else was doing it. It was inspiring. It was written that she wanted to remain a gospel artist, but was forced to do secular music. I’m inspired by her to be able to cross over. She had an incredible blues and gospel voice.
DD: How would you describe Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
TNC: She was a fearless and independent thinker who made her own way. She was a trailblazer. She was a strong woman. She was a child prodigy. She toured with her mom at six-years-old. All that experienced was gathered up. She was really about being yourself.
|Tracy Nicole Chapman|
DD: In the show do you get into who she was as a human being or is it all about the music?
TNC: It’s really more about her being a human being. We start with her at age 18 and talk about her marriages and the business. We try to explore who she was as a human. Cheryl West (the playwright) did a good job in capturing her essence.
DD: What kind of research did you do and what did you find out about her that you didn’t know?
TNC: I read the book by Gayle Wald. That’s where I got most of the information. There is also a PBS documentary. What was interesting was that she cursed like a sailor – that was surprising. She also had a wedding with 20,000 people at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1951. They recorded the wedding and made an album. Decca Records thought it would be a good idea. About 20,000 people brought her gifts.
DD: When you’re preparing for a role like this, how do you start? How do you prepare for this role?
TNC: They had custom guitars made. They had custom-made Les Paul guitars made – that’s what she played. At first I stared at it. I said, ‘Ok, Rosetta what do you want people to know about you?’ People don’t know about her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. That has since been rectified. What little we do know we tried to incorporate. We took creative license with some things. I try to find ways I think we’re similar. She was open-minded. I asked her to come forth so I could get inspiration.
DD: There is footage of Sister Tharpe. Mimicking her and the essence of her are two different things. It’s a fine line. How do you balance your interpretation?
TNC: The good news is the creative team all said for me not to mimic. They said, “Be you. Put some inflections of her.” I noticed there were some mannerisms. She rarely looks down at her guitar. The essence is playing the commonality, not trying to mimic or be her.
DD: Why did you want to take on this role?
TNC: It’s funny you ask that. I didn’t go in for this part. When I heard about it two years ago, I said I was going to go see this show – not be in it. Then, I was going in for the role of Marie, her singing partner. They said, “You play guitar, come back and do Rosetta.” This is a huge part. I don’t leave the stage – expect maybe for five minutes. God has sent this my way, so I’m going to do it.
|Tracy Nicole Chapman|
DD: What is it about her and her music?
TNC: She’s a hidden figure. She was so influential. A lot of people don’t get their ‘just due’. She was very natural and real. She was funny and down to earth. I think that’s what makes her stand out. She didn’t put on any fronts. Sometimes brilliant people get lost in the shuffle.
DD: Talk about how you prepare to go on stage to become Sister Rosetta. What is your ritual? How do you prepare your instrument?
TNC: Voice lessons. I do vocal coaching warm ups in the morning at eight. I warm up again in the afternoon and right before the show. I do this via Skype with my vocal coach. I usually don’t go out. I go home and rest. I try to be quiet during the day. This show covers jazz, pop and some musical theater. This show is a vocal workout. I do the scales, some sirens, you know like doing the Soul Train siren up and down. I also drink tea with honey.
DD: She was a monster on the guitar. How good are you at playing the guitar?
TNC: I know how to play a little bit. Not on her level. She did a lot of finger picking. I’m more about playing chords. I can accompany myself. I’ve recently taken lessons. I started three weeks ago.
DD: What was it like working with Randy Johnson who did A Night With Janis Joplin.
TNC: Randy is very giving. He gives us freedom and flexibility. He’s open. He creates a team environment.
DD: You’ve had an impressive career. Your Broadway credits include: Little Shop of Horrors; Caroline, or Change; Into the Woods and The Lion King. You originated the role of Shenzi in The Lion King. Talk about the trajectory of your career. What is the criteria when deciding on a project?
TNC: Usually it’s about what the piece is about. This is the scariest one I’ve ever done. It’s about the story and the music.
DD: What did you expect from this business and what did you get?
TNC: I was blessed. I was in Ohio. I knew when I was 11-years-old what I wanted to do. I remember seeing Purlie, and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. I went to the University of Cincinnati for music theater. I went on tour and then went to New York to do the Dreamgirls tour. I was a singer who moved well and did chorus work. That was fun. I was living the dream. I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. Now, because I’m older, I pick and choose what is interesting to do. That’s kind of nice to be able to take a pass on some things. I’ve been lucky to work with the best directors.
The play, written by Cheryl West (based on Gayle Wald’s book Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe), created and directed by Randy Johnson, stars Tracy Nicole Chapman, Logan Charles, Yvette Cason, Michael A. Shepperd, Angela Teek, Thomas Hobson, Boise Holmes and Armando Yearwood, Jr.
Shout Sister Shout!’s creative team includes: choreographer Keith Young, musical director Rahn Coleman, scenic designer Steven C. Kemp, costume designer Dana Rebecca Woods, lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, sound designer Jon Gottlieb, wig/hair designer Carol F. Doran, casting director Michael Donovan, CSA; and associate director Tyler Rhodes.
Shout Sister Shout, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena; 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 4 and 8 p.m. Sat and 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. through Aug. 20, 2017; (Note: there will be one Tuesday performance on August 15 at 8 p.m. and no Sunday night performance at 7 p.m. on August 20; Tickets: $25-$115; PasadenaPlayhouse.org or 626 356-7529.