When Joe DiPietro wrote the book and co-wrote lyrics for “Memphis,” the best-musical Tony winner of 2010, he thought people would love it for the R&B music and as an evocative period piece set in the 1950s.
He was surprised when he learned that what really grabbed people was the play’s interracial love story.
“Amazingly, in this day and age,” he said, “an interracial love story is still provocative, a thing of fascination about those times.”
Interracial marriage was illegal in many states in the 1950s and 1960s. DiPietro said shocked teens who see the show often ask their parents and teachers, “Is that really how it was?”
“Memphis,” which opens an eight-show run Tuesday at the Orpheum Theater, contains history lessons about both popular music and segregation that have plenty of relevance today.
Actress Felicia Boswell, who has been playing the female lead in “Memphis,” blues singer Felicia, for 15 months on tour, said she especially identifies with the story.
The fictional Felicia’s career gets a boost when white radio disc jockey Huey Calhoun promotes her singing, then falls in love with her.
“I’ve been from the South,” Boswell said recently from Boston, where the show played for two weeks. “I grew up singing gospel. Rosa Parks is my cousin. I’ve always dated outside my race. So it’s not so much a stretch for me to play this role as it is an extension of myself.”
Parks sparked the bus boycott of Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white person. She became an icon of resistance to racial segregation.
Boswell said her “Memphis” character, like Parks, has tender-tough qualities she understands.
“Being an African-American woman of that time, you had to have a thick skin, to walk down the street and be called ugly names and still hold your head high,” Boswell said. “Her tender side is wanting to love who she wants to love, and to feel safe in that love.”
The innate desire to love and be loved is universal, Boswell said, and audiences identify with the story regardless of race or gender.
When Boswell first saw “Memphis” on Broadway, Bryan Fenkart was playing Huey. Now she’s playing opposite him.
Unlike Boswell, Fenkart said, he’s not much like his character. He said there wasn’t a big black community in his New Jersey hometown. He went to a primarily white school.
The world opened up for Fenkart at Rutgers University, where he was thrust into diversity. Now living in the melting pot of Queens, N.Y., he connects easily with the story of “Memphis” and has grown to love his character.
“Huey has to be a quirky, weird guy,” Fenkart said. “He dresses strange. He talks funny. But you also have to be rooting for him.”
Fenkart said Huey isn’t trying to do some huge, sweeping gesture of integration. That happens almost by accident. The disc jockey’s goal is to spread music he thinks is brilliant, music he thinks people should be listening to regardless of their race. He’s a rebel.
DiPietro said Huey is an illiterate outsider, similar to what rock ’n’ roll was considered at the time: “a degenerate fad about youth and rebellion.”
To DiPietro and his producers, “Memphis” always seemed like more than a show.
“This message should reach a diverse audience, one that might not typically go to the theater,” he said. “We wrote it because it was a great story to tell, and we had an interesting take on it.”
He said rock ’n’ roll and radio were a precursor to the civil rights movement.
“The important message here is the power of an individual or group to change the world in some way,” he said. “Believe in what you believe, push it ahead stubbornly, and you can change the world.”
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