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Beale Street Blues

Civic's Memphis jumps into the early days of rock n’ roll

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2017-02-03


In the opening scene of Memphis, a raucous late-night party at the music club Delray’s comes to a screeching halt when Huey Calhoun, a white guy, wanders in. He assures the club’s owner and the patrons that he’s just there for the tunes. The festivities eventually resume, but with some reluctance, and a whole lot of nervousness among the formerly carefree partiers…

The scene does what all good opening scenes are supposed to do, evoking the conflicts and divisions of 50s-era Memphis, Tennessee. The transcendent promise of the music — and the love all the characters have for the music — stands in stark contrast to the reality of the time and place. “At the time, you had ‘black Memphis’ and ‘white Memphis’,” says Leslie Beauchamp, director and choreographer of the Fort Wayne Civic’s production of Memphis, which begins its run on February 17. “For Huey to drop into a club off Beale street during that time… it would have been pretty rare.”

The music isn’t the only thing that keeps Calhoun (played by Jake Wilhelm) coming back to Delray’s — the owner’s sister Felicia (Fatima Washington), a singer, catches his eye and his ear. He says he can get her on the radio. He talks himself into a gig as a DJ at a local radio station; he’s almost fired when he plays a rock n’ roll record, but the phones light up with requests, and he’s able to stay. Meanwhile, his relationship with Felcia continues to grow over the objections of his mother (played by Pam Good) and Felicia’s brother Delray (Albert Brownlee)…

The play is (very) loosely based on the life of Huey Phillips, a DJ in Memphis during the 50s, one of the pioneering DJs who played “race music” on what were considered white radio stations. Like some of his “real life” counterparts, Huey Calhoun isn’t necessarily a crusader for social equality — he’s just a guy with a gift for gab who loves the music.

But as much as much as Memphis celebrates the power of music to cross racial lines, the play doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of the era. Felicia and Huey don’t simply face social ostracism and the disapproval of family; they are actually breaking the law, and are in real, physical danger. One of the musical’s show-stoppers tells us “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails,” but the overall message is that it’s never that easy, and may come at a heavy price.

Beauchamp says that aspect of Memphis was one of the things that interested her in taking the director’s chair for the show. “It asks us to think important thoughts,” Beauchamp explains. “It doesn’t tell you what to think, but it asks us to examine things, and you don’t often get the opportunity to do theater that does that.”

Beauchamp continues: “(Memphis) seems to be taking you down a certain path, but in the end, the show doesn’t take you where you’re expecting it to.” Huey and Felicia are both smart, ambitious people, but the world and era they live in are not going to let them reach their goals together…

But what Memphis might really be about is the music. The play won several Tony awards, including Best Musical in 2010, and the soundtrack is full of show stoppers all (mostly) in the style of early rock n’ roll and 50s R&B. The Civic’s cast is stellar — Fatima Washington (Felicia) in particular one of the best singers in the city, and can really shine with material like this. “Rehearsals have been so much fun,” Beauchamp laughs. “Night after night, watching them work, I just sit there and smile, seeing it all come together.”

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The Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Memphis
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street

Friday February 17 8 pm
Saturday February 18 8 pm
Sunday February 19 2 pm

Friday February 24 8 pm
Saturday February 25 8 pm
Sunday February 26 2 pm

Tickets: $29 Adults; $24 Senior Matinees; $17 Age 23 and under_

Tickets available at the box office; or call (260) 424-5220; or online at fwcivic.org.

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