‘Memphis’, Race and Original Sin

This weekend I attended a performance of my favorite musical, Memphis, which premiered at the University of Dubuque. The musical tells the story of a racially divided Memphis in the 1950s.  Huey Calhoun, a poor white kid, struggles with his passionate love for both black culture and a beautiful black singer, Felicia. Huey is illiterate, but understands deeply the language of music. He is at first an unwelcome guest in a black club, but he falls in love with the owner’s sister. This music speaks to him, and his opening song, “Music of my soul,” is a bluesy tug at the heartstrings. Huey’s mother and Felicia’s brother are both very against the budding romance, but it perseveres for a time. Huey, with his awkward charm, lands a job at a radio station and is able to play “race music” or black rhythm and blues on a white station. Many are scandalized, of course, but many actually take a liking to it.

The rifts and difficulties become apparent when Felicia and Huey realize they cannot be together. Felicia is beaten by a gang of racists, and Delray, Felicia’s sister, is understandably angry. The second act begins with a ray of hope though, as Huey’s show skyrockets to the top of the ratings and he gets a tv show. Felicia begins to attract New York record company executives. Felicia dreams of going north where they can be more open about the relationship, but Huey is optimistic about Memphis’ changing attitudes. Things could not be further from the truth when he kisses her on live TV, and Huey loses his show. Felicia does go to New York and eventually on tour. The musical ends on a bittersweet note when Felicia stops by to see Huey. It is several years later and she is engaged to another man now. They do reconcile and sing.

It is fitting that it does not end with a perfectly happy ending. Music has a special ability to bring people together in a way that few other things can. But it works slowly, and one cannot erode prejudice overnight. The 1950s were a terrifying time to be a black American. Memphis captures and acknowledges this. But it also brings to mind that there is good in every age. Every era and every society has an original sin just as it has those who act against the grain of it. We would like to think that we are more like Huey than his mother, and it is likely that we are. Racism is not as visible as it once was, but it still exists, and so Memphis is not a tale of bygone evils. It is a tale that is told throughout time. Love precedes understanding rather than understanding preceding love. In order to understand someone, we must love them. Huey understood this, and I wish more people understood this too.

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