In the 1950s, Memphis, Tennessee, was subject to Jim Crow laws and segregation. R&B and rock ’n’ roll played to two distinctly different crowds — until DJ Dewy Philips changed things. Take a journey with Cape Fear Regional Theatre to “Memphis,” where rock ’n’ roll was born. The show runs May 9-26.
“Memphis” is inspired by reallife events and people. According to director Suzanne Agins, the central character is a white DJ, named Huey Calhoun in the play, who makes it his mission to expose his white audience to the blues. He is played by Matthew Mucha and is based on real-life DJ Dewy Philips. The story is about his drive to expand people’s minds about music and his relationship with African American blues singer Felicia Farrell, a character who is not based on a real-life counterpart. “It is all this great R&B and early rock ’n’ roll coming from the African American community, and this guy who made it his life’s work to get it out to whites,” said Agins.
When she started thinking about how to tell the story best, Agins, who also directed “Dreamgirls” at CFRT in 2017, reached back to her previous experience in Fayetteville. “I was here for ‘Dreamgirls,’ and it was an amazing thing to be surround by amazing women,” she said.
Agins noticed that Felicia, played by Shonica Gooden, didn’t have strong female characters to relate to in the story. “I thought about the main character and wondered why she didn’t have a friend to talk to,” said Agins. “I looked at (the character of ) her brother and thought there is nothing about this (character) that is inherently male. It is a human who cares deeply for his sister.
“We asked the licensing company if we could change this to a female character and made our case. … We cast an amazing actress, and she is killing it.” The script didn’t change, just the gender of one character.
Gooden didn’t know the role of her character’s brother was going to change to that of a sister, but she’s embraced it. “I think it has made it better,” she said. “We brought that sisterly bond into the story, making it that much more authentic onstage.”
CFRT Marketing Director Ashley Owen noted that the story covers an important topic — race. “It delves into the relationship between white and black people in that time,” she said. “The message is one of loving people when you come together and experience something special. It is an important story to tell, and we work hard to do it well, if for no other reason than for people to be able to talk about the message.”
David Robbins plays Bobby Dupree, Huey’s best friend. For him, the music adds to an already meaty performance. “‘Memphis’ won best score for the year it came out,” he said. “You will be leaving the theater humming the tunes.”
Ricardo Morgan is a Fayetteville native and no stranger to the CFRT stage. “Member of the Wedding,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Trip to Bountiful” are a few of the shows he’s performed in. Morgan is in the ensemble. “Given the theme of the show and climate of our nation, this is another opportunity for the arts to help heal,” he said. “And in doing so, we talk about preconceptions. You will leave singing, but you will also leave having asked yourself questions. Questions we ask daily come to life onstage — it is about a sense of community and supporting each other.” Due to the content, the show is rated PG-13.
The play runs May 9-26. Visit www.cfrt.org for tickets and information. Look for theme nights and special events, including Red Carpet Ready, Opening Night Dance Party, Mimosa Brunch and Military Night, on the website.
Photo: Matthew Mucha as Huey Calhoun (left) and Shonica Gooden as Felicia Farrell (right)