08/02/2012 05:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Memphis: A Fantasical, Relevant Musical

Warning: Strong language, may be offensive to some

Karel and lead Bryant Fenkhart after the play Memphis at the Library / Redbury
Photo: Daniel Charleston

Store Manager: "That's Nigger music, and there ain't no Niggers around here. Get out."

The audience at the Pantages gasped as loudly as you might have now just reading it. Harsh, the words assault. They are obtuse and beyond the pale, at least to this good group of theater goers. And they are meant to be -- to set the tone for the next two hours.

It's hard to imagine a "feel good" musical about racism, the divide between blacks and whites, and how horrible humans can be to each other. Racism is perhaps one of the ugliest of the human traits, one we've had trouble breeding out of existence. At a time when a black couple is denied getting married in a church in Mississippi, in 2012, not 1955; at a time when a Republican leader can sit on a show where the host calls President Obama a "monkey" and says "I voted for the white guy..." repeatedly without repercussion; well, let's just say it's sad that a "period piece" still rings so true.

But Memphis centers on the music, on the soul of the community and a little white boy on a mission to get it heard because it's "the music of his soul."

The play is loosely based on the life of Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play "race" music as it was called in the 1950s. Harry Truman may have desegregated the military in July of 1948, but one of my industries, radio, still had deep segregation well in the 1960s. Bryan Fenkhart plays Huey Calhoun, who stumbles in to a Memphis bar "in the wrong side of town: read, black" and falls instantly in love with the music, and one of the singers, Felicia (played by the incredible Felicia Boswell).

Karel and Felicia Boswell and Quentin Earl Darrington (Del Rey)

I remember sitting in Jekyll & Hyde and seeing Linda Eder for the first time, or walking in to a studio where the late Vesta Williams was signing, hearing Labelle for the first time or watching Heather Headley soar in Aida. That was what it was like watching Boswell. From that small frame and petite body comes a voice as big as any other, one that could easily fill a room without a mike at all.

It is Fenkhart and Boswell that drive the bus, but the supporting cast holds them up brilliantly. Will Mann as Bobby, a role he created on Broadway, brings the audience to their feet several times with both his comedic abilities and his powerful vocals. Julie Johnson as Huey's mom Gladys stops the show, literally, when she "Testifies" in the second act.

"I knew when I saw the rehearsal tape for the play, that I was going to have to 'bring it'" she said at the cast after party held at The Library, part of the Redbury at 1717 Vine in Los Angeles, CA. "I'm from the South, and if you are going to testify, you have take it there," she laughed. Johnson's son was standing by her side, all of 16 or so, who was selling programs in the lobby, on tour with mom. She dotes a little, but who wouldn't?

Julie Johnson and Karel at the after party for Memphis. Photo: Daniel Charleston

"There's so much in this play that rings true today," Boswell later added. "It's a period piece, yes, but the harshness of it still exists today in many places. We're not there yet, but we are trying," she said.

Fenkhart''s "Huey" and his love of the music and color blindness is infectious. The play points out how much we, all of us, love African American culture: the music, the people, the soul. That true diversity is when cultures merge, not homogenize but blend, mixing like a great recipe full of many flavors. Love is, in fact, love and you can't help who you love or why.

As I sat watching the ill-fated lovers, one black, one white, and all the objections to their being together, or their inability to marry (The Loving case came in the 1960s which would legalize interracial marriage) not being able to get married myself in my state, as echoes of Mississippi and a "no black" marriage policy at a church prevailed in July of 2012, well, I actually felt ashamed. We should be so much further.

It's easy to see why the play won four Tony Awards, has set records on Broadway and why this touring company is being so well received.

"You guys were a great audience," Mann said as we chatted on the patio of The Library. As a lucky person who first saw a play at the Pantages in Hollywood, where this play is showing before its off to Portland, Seattle and beyond, I speak from experience: the audience is only a great audience when the play itself is great. And this one is.

White artists stole black music: this we know. TV and Radio sanitized "race" music when they brought it to radio and TV. But there were the rebels, like Phillips and even Dick Clark who did not accept the status quo and brought young black kids in to the mix with white. Music bridged the racial divide, as the arts often do. Radio helped make that happen, even if it didn't want to; remember, it wouldn't have happened if there hadn't been money in it. White audiences wanted what black artists had to offer, still do, and because of that, white bosses reluctantly gave in.

A stellar cast, a great venue and a relevant musical: what more could one ask for in a night of theater? See Memphis when you can, it's a fantasical, Hockadoo sort of evening that makes you think and feel as much as sing. But be prepared, if you're white, one thing you might feel is a little shame for the way others have treated vibrant members of our society. It's in Los Angeles July 31-August 12 tickets at

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