Memphis: A Rollicking History Lesson

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


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 or at 401-421-ARTS (2787). PPAC, 220 Weybosset St., Providence.

If you’re into this blog wait until you see what’s inside Rhode Island Monthly each month.
Only $1.50 per issue when you sign up for a year. Visit the Subscription Center.




Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

You might enjoy reading...

Go Back in Time with Chifferobe's Holiday in Swingtime Show

You may have gotten a look at what a 1930's social club is like by watching “Boardwalk Empire,” but here in Providence you can see and hear what the experience is like in person.

The Weekly Round-up: Sept. 4–10

Five can't-miss events of the week.

The Weekly Round-up: July 17–23

Five can't-miss events of the week.

The Weekly Round-up: July 10–16

Five can't-miss events of the week.

The Weekly Round-up: June 19–25

Five can't-miss events of the week.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Popular Articles

Rhode Islanders of the Year

Meet the women, men and kids who have done the Ocean State proud this year.

Here's How to Apply for RI's New Free College Initiative

Step-by-step guidelines on how to score two years of free college through Rhode Island's Promise.

25 Ways to Ring in the New Year in Rhode Island

New Year's Eve festivities include dinners, rooftop parties, live music, burlesque shows and more.

28 Best Seafood Restaurants in Rhode Island

Narragansett Beer is Back

The century-old company is brewing in Rhode Island once again.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Edit ModuleShow Tags