All words: Ali Goldstein
Memphis!, on stage now at the Kennedy Center, is a musical that pinpoints the senstive nexus of our cultural geography: race.
For those of our generation, for whom our nation’s complicated history with civil rights is part and parcel of our cultural inheritance, the story introduced by Memphis! is a familiar one.
It is the 1950s on the wrong side of Memphis and an electric song sounds across the alley. A white DJ named Huey has stumbled to this side of town from his working class neighborhood in search of the music he loves and ends up falling flat on this face for a vibrant black singer named Felicia. Over the course of the story, music narrates their perpetual zig zag across boundaries as they win over their families and confront their own assumptions.
Growing up in the shadow of the civil rights movement, this is the pop culture legacy to which we’ve grown accustomed. Our childhoods were populated by films of forbidden love and boundaries crossed, artistic works that took a strong glance back at an era that shaped so much of who we are today.
The story, however, is told in a song and a dance and a sprinkle of nostalgia. With the vibrant vocals and captivating choreagraphy you’d expect from a musical about the transcendent power of rock and roll, it’s entirely enjoyable. The story resists, however, holding up the full cultural significance of the subject it depicts. It’s a story about race that ultimately asks too little of its audience. In so doing, it never quite achieves the dramatic complexity it promises.
This isn’t to say that the lives of the two lead characters are presented as easy. Rather, their lives are full of struggle and their landscape full of challenge. We get compelling glimpses of the potential for complex narrative arc. There’s Huey struggling with the low expectations he sets for himself and Felicia trying to find her own voice amidst the suffocating love of the two men competing to control her life.
The portrait of how they overcome these challenges is just always presented too simply. Choreagraphed by the team behind “Jersey Boys” — the wildly popular musical that narrates a collective nostalgia – Memphis! insists on building a similar memory around the Civil Rights movement. It hints at enough struggle to seem realistic, but there’s no assumption so deep its characters can’t overcome it in a song. This artistic choice serves to make the musical contradictory instead of satisfying. The plot’s twists of new love and boundaries crossed suggest extremes of emotion and moral challenges from which the audience is ultimately coddled. We’re given comfort instead of catharis: the story seems compelled to present the Civil Rights movement in such a way that we can all take quick and easy satisfaction in how far we’ve come.
As the title suggests, Memphis itself is the central character of the story. Felicia and Huey grew up in its neighborhoods and inherited its boundaries. It comes to stand in for familial roots and the cultural history the two main characters can never quite escape. One of the story’s key strengths is its consideration of the importance of landscape in shaping perspective and character. Felicia and Huey areMemphis, even as they contemplate leaving it behind.
Yet, the story ultimately lets Memphis and the 1950s shoulder too much of our collective responsibility. The characters we’re supposed to identify with are resolutely good at best and misguided at worst. It’s clear that we’re supposed to see ourselves as champions of a new way of thinking and racism as a legacy we long ago left behind.
Presenting the challenges and bravery of our nation’s struggles with race is no easy task. With incredible vocals and interesting staging, Memphis! succeeds somewhat — at least as far as its myriad Tony awards suggest — in building a story we’ve tacitly agreed represents our triumphs.
Racism, however, is more than Memphis and more than the 1950′s. As we grow up and grapple with the difficult questions posed by our nation’s history, we’re just starting to demand more than rock and roll to guide us.