Sounds & Soul of Memphis at Players by the Sea

Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen

Missing Event Data

 

In parts of Africa, the word Sankofa translates to proverb “it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” It also refers to the Adrinka symbol represented by a mythical bird with its head turned backwards, taking an egg off its back in the stylized shape of a heart. The Akan believe it is necessary to reflect on the past to ensure the strength of the future, that there must be movement and new learning as time passes. 

As this forward march proceeds, the knowledge of the past must never be forgotten. Memphis is a journey in time, looking back on the struggles and the soul of the Civil Rights era at a time when races were divided but music was a unifying force bridging the gap between cultures with movement and heart.

The Tony Award-winning musical Memphis closes out the 50th season at Players by the Sea, and runs through August 13th. (249-0289, www.playersbythesea.org). The musical is directed by Jereme Raickett with musical direction by Meachum Clarke and choreography by J’royce Jata.

Memphis, Players By The Sea, Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen

The cast features Sam Brown, Rashawnda Foster, Gloria Ware, Rodney Holmes, Milton Threadcraft, Kurt McCall, Brandon Hines, David Sacks, Joseph Stearman, Allen Morton, Clayton Riddley, Willie Beaton, Sherry Rosen, Jennifer Johnston, Tamia Brinkley, Natasha Anderson, Joel Oliver, Chelsey Marion, Arielle Bryant, Bertha Jones, Arden Trusty, Winter Hughes, Tre Ventriglio, Jennifer O’Brien, Carol Harden, Linzy Lauren, Tina Wilson, Azschrielle Jackson, Kathryn Seymore, Kiaya Cash, Joquerria Murphy and Latara Osorio.

In Memphis, the music of the ‘50s serves as the common denominator that binds people together not regardless of circumstance but in spite of it. It tells the story of forbidden interracial romance with roof-raising dance numbers and a score that will rock you back in time.

Memphis_PlayersByTheSea_5_Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona RamadeenHuey, played by Rodney Holmes, is a white radio DJ who follows the voice of Felicia, played by Rashawnda Honee Foster, into an all-black club. Despite their differences, Huey is unfazed by the racial inequities of the 1950s. He is enchanted by the lovely songbird during a time in history when tensions are high. The soul of the era and an illicit love comes through in the music and brings people together in a way that politics and social pressures failed to do. “Music is the thing that binds them,” says Holmes.

The unifying power of music is evident in all aspects of the production. Musical director Meachum Clarke says the nature of the rehearsal schedules often divides the cast, but the players to come together on stage despite the division. “The reality is that we typically work with our Beale Street cast, our black brothers and sisters, and our Main Street cast, which is our white brothers and sisters,” says Clarke. “There are more things that bring us together than separate us, and this show does a great job of showing that.”

Dance is the current that helps move the story, and choreographer J’royce Jata channels the message and the spirit of the era. “In the 40s, 50s and 60s, there was so much more of a positive message in the music,” he says. “A lot of our music of today’s generation doesn’t really have that much substance.”

“You have no idea what is going on. You think everything is hunky dory, but the reality of it is there are so many things that I may be doing that may not be very progressive of the betterment of this world. We need to realize that we’re all one, and that we all have things to do to make this world a better place. You have to really look at yourself and that’s what this story does. It goes into the heart of every single character.”

 

Current events like the tragic shooting in Orlando reflect more than ever the urgency for love, acceptance and faith in people. Memphis shines the light into the dark corners of the human existence. “We have a song called ‘Say a Prayer’ which, without giving too much away, black people got hurt a lot, and something happens in the show, and we come together and pray about it,” Clarke says.

The most challenging aspect of staging a musical is striking the balance between the spirit of the music and the vulnerability to portray the characters in the most compassionate and realistic light. Holmes says as an actor, he tapped into his own emotional experiences to create Huey’s layered performance.

Memphis_PlayersByTheSea_2_Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen

“The elements of the show, the singing, acting and dancing, they’re also bringing back to the fact that we have to portray the lives of real people,” says Foster. “People that are sitting in our audience may have gone through the same thing that these characters have gone through. And we have to keep it real.”

Clarke says Memphis provides an important timeline in history, tracing back the birth of rock ‘n’ roll during the segregated south to the present day with the country’s first black president. “As people of color, we haven’t even been allowed to vote for more than 50 years,” he says. “That’s crazy looking back to see how far we’ve come and how much work there is still left to do.”

Memphis, Players By The SeaThe cast hopes to impart a feeling of unity to the audience, and let them know that they are not alone in their experiences even if no one has ever said something. Everyone has value and everyone has within them the power to inspire change.

“You have no idea what is going on. You think everything is hunky dory, but the reality of it is there are so many things that I may be doing that may not be very progressive of the betterment of this world. We need to realize that we’re all one, and that we all have things to do to make this world a better place. You have to really look at yourself and that’s what this story does. It goes into the heart of every single character.”

Associate Director Bradley Akers says from the theatre’s standpoint, they wanted to select a closing musical that would resonate with audiences long after the final curtain. “The work that this cast is doing is important,” he says. While there is no way to predict the future, Akers says there is always an opportunity to use art as a tool to make a difference in people’s lives and recognize inequities as they happen. And act on them.

About Liza Mitchell