Memphis: A Rollicking History Lesson

The Tony Award-winning musical tells the story of integration of music in the 1950s.


Published:

From left to right: Felicia Boswell (Felicia), Rhett George (Gator), Bryan Fenkart (Huey) and Will Mann (Bobby).

Paul Kolnik

Flip through the radio long enough these days and you’re almost certain to catch Rihanna singing “Diamonds in the Sky.” But sixty years ago, the presence of a talented black vocalist on the airwaves was anything but a given.

Memphis, the Tony Award-winning production playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center, takes us back to the segregated airwaves of the 1950s. Part of a national tour and PPAC's Broadway Series, it's based on the story of the late Dewey Phillips, a white Memphis deejay who introduced audiences to rhythm and blues, jazz, rock and roll and country, winning both black and white fans. The rollicking and inspiring musical tells the tale of Huey Calhoun, a self-described white redneck who is drawn to the underground rhythm and blues clubs of Memphis and falls in love with a talented and beautiful young black singer named Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell).   

At the club, the excitable Huey (Bryan Fenkart) discovers “the music of my soul”—and a purpose in life. Soon, he talks his way into selling records briefly at the department store where he works, only to get fired for selling “race records.” He continues to visit Felicia at the club, and promises to get her on the radio one day. In one of the most entertaining parts of the musical, Huey gets closer to his promise when he visits a local radio station, locks himself inside, almost gets arrested playing “Everyone Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” until radio station owner Mr. Simmons (William Parry) hears all the calls from white teenagers who love the music.

Huey has found his calling, but he and Felicia’s growing love is still set against the violent backdrop of segregation. Huey’s mother (Julie Johnson) is upset after a brick is thrown through their window and doesn’t approve of their relationship. Meanwhile, Felicia’s protective older brother, Delray (Horace V. Rogers), has disapproved of Huey since he came into the club. And when Felicia brings Huey a copy of the first record she’s ever recorded—which was financed by her family and friends—so he can play it on the air—his mother throws it on the floor, breaking it.

Eventually, though, Huey arranges it so Felicia can perform live on the air. Her singing is electrifying, but trouble starts when Huey announces on the air that he wants her to kiss him. Delray is furious that Huey has put his sister in danger. Later that night, Huey and Felicia talk about moving north and getting married. As they kiss on the street, however, they are pulled apart by a group of white men who severely beat Felicia.

When the action opens in the second act two years later, Huey has now expanded into a successful television show and Felicia has recovered and continued to sing. The couple comes to a crossroads when Felicia is approached by a record producer from New York, while Huey wants to remain in Memphis. When he travels to New York to try out for a TV show, bringing black dancers, he finds out that the north isn’t necessarily better than the south.

Alternately sad, funny and inspiring, Memphis is a history lesson filled with compelling characters who were determined to sing and play the music of their soul and ultimately changed the world.

Memphis plays at PPAC through December 9. Tickets are on sale through ppacri.org or at 401-421-ARTS (2787). PPAC, 220 Weybosset St., Providence.


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