Review: MEMPHIS at Porchlight Music Theatre

Review: MEMPHIS at Porchlight Music Theatre

Liam Quealy as “Huey Calhoun”  and Aeriel Williams as “Felicia Farrell” in MEMPHIS | Michael Courier

By Kelsey McGrath

MEMPHIS is another superb Porchlight production. As a company that continually tells big stories with big hearts and impressive production values, this company sets the standard for Chicago musical theatre. Porchlight balances idealism and vulnerability that only Chicago could grasp. MEMPHIS is now added to the company’s long list of theatrical accomplishments.

Directed by Daryl Brooks, MEMPHIS lifts up true events of Dewey Phillips, a 1950s white radio DJ that changed the face of pop culture by catapulting “race music” to its forefront. MEMPHIS specifically recounts his work with Felicia Farrell, a black songstress. The relationship quickly becomes romantic, which has tumultuous and dangerous consequences in the Jim Crow era.

The cast as a whole exudes passionate, breathtaking gusto on stage. This ensemble is amazing, folks. With Christopher Carter’s incredible choreography, the talent brims and explodes. Leads Aeriel Williams and Liam Quealy bring killer vocals and a unique, subdued energy that allows their relationship to grow throughout.

While the production is top notch, the show itself is problematic. Which is okay; problematic work presents the opportunity for dialogue and critical thought. Both of which are necessary in today’s cultural climate.

Throughout MEMPHIS, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the “white savior” trope. Dewey comes into a black nightclub and intentionally takes their music. Felicia’s brother and owner of the club calls this stealing, Dewey calls it promotion. Further, Dewey enters a black space of worship and the chorus members accept him as one of their own. Which is fine, and I know places of worship have a different energy around this idea. But it perpetuates the incorrect assumption that white people can enter a black space and deserve to be embraced or celebrated for “being brave” or whatever. Black people can do what they want with their spaces and as white people, we need permission to join them. I’m curious about how this story was unpacked in the hands of Brooks and Carter, both artists of color.

And while I realize this musical was based on true events, it’s difficult for me to appreciate or connect to the urgency of production; ie, why this show, why now? In the director’s note, Brooks amplifies the forbidden love between Dewey and Felicia. Brooks contends that love still isn’t completely free. But MEMPHIS doesn’t do a thorough job of presenting Felicia and Dewey outside of music making and marketing. In fact, their relationship seems built on the transaction that Felicia would give Dewey a kiss if he broadcasts her music. She does choose to kiss him after he fulfills his promise.

But Felicia lacks agency in the show and operates as a puppet for her brother’s and Dewey’s dreams. It is not until the end where she chooses to go to New York rather than stay with Dewey in Memphis that we see her make her own decisions. Further, the climactic moment of Dewey kissing Felicia on live TV and sparking conflict and outrage, the kiss wasn’t consensual. Felicia has the sense to know the consequences of such actions, which Dewey ignores (Because he can since he is white) and then everything falls apart. He makes a grandiose statement, but at what cost?

The play also has these simplistic scenes of interracial joy that are intended to depict “the solution.” As in, if we all just danced to rock and roll music together in the same room, racism is solved! Or, if kids jumped rope together, everything will be okay! MEMPHIS also gives Dewey’s racist mother an easy redemption. While she begins as a poor, racist, white woman, she only comes to humanize black people when she realizes race music could make her son money and therefore, buy her a new house. She was vehemently against Dewey and Felicia’s relationship, but came around when she realized how happy he was. Again, we don’t really know Felicia and his relationship well, so this redemption of and acceptance of the racist white woman is a hopeful stretch.

MEMPHIS is fanciful and musicals are fanciful. But this production is an excellent opportunity to unpack contemporary musical theatre, art, and the world at large. Go support artists of color. Go have the weird, frustrating, confusing conversations. Go see MEMPHIS.

About author

Kelsey McGrath

Kelsey is a Chicago based producer, actor, writer, critic, and mixologist. An alum of Black Box Acting’s ACADEMY Program, Kelsey curates “The Newness,” a monthly salon of new work. They also work closely with Trans Voices Cabaret Chicago as well as Chicago Theatre Access Auditions. Follow them on Insta! @playsandpours, @kelseylooks