ALL THE WAY FROM MEMPHIS

The July 22 opening of Memphis at Players by the Sea represented a milestone moment for the musical’s director, Jereme Raicket. The 2007 graduate of Douglas Anderson School of the Arts has certainly put in his time, performing and working behind the scenes at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre, UNF’s Lazzara Performance Hall, as well as PBTS. But, when PBTS Executive Director Joe Schwarz originally asked the young thespian if he’d be interested in making the Emmy Award-winning musical his directorial debut with the company, Raicket was unsure.

Memphis tells the story of Huey Calhoun, a white radio Disc Jockey — loosely based on Dewey Phillips, the first DJ to play Elvis Presley on air — who falls in love with Felicia Farrell, a talented African-American singer. Written by David Bryan and Joe Pietro, Memphis won acclaim for its musical score, a raucous gamut of tunes that draw deeply from ’50s-era soul, blues, gospel, and rock ’n’ roll.

“The subject matter is so powerful,” Raicket says of the musical, which deals heavily in the racism of the late-’50s South. “It’s about love. It’s about equality. It’s about reminding us that it wasn’t too long ago that we were dealing with this kind of hatred. That added a lot of weight to the decision of whether or not to take it on.”

Raicket did take it on, finding inspiration in the timely nature of the musical’s storyline.

“I decided this is my way of playing a part in the conversation that’s going on right now across the country. What other way is there to do it?”

Just days before opening night, Folio Weekly Magazine and Raicket discussed rock ’n’ roll, his lead actors, and his desire to add some grit to Memphis.

 

Folio Weekly Magazine: Rodney Holmes plays Huey Calhoun in the musical’s lead role. What did Holmes bring to this part?
Jereme Raicket: Huey is one of those parts where we said, ‘Whoever this guy is, he has to be right.’ Rodney picked up the script and immediately the words just came to life. I saw Huey Calhoun standing right in front of me, in that moment. And Rodney has done his research, too, reading up on Dewey Phillips. He really brings the character to life.

 

And Huey’s love interest, the singer Felicia, is played by local actress Rashawnda Foster.
Yes, Rashawnda plays Felicia, who is kind of Huey’s inspiration. Rashawnda and I have been friends since high school. I knew I wanted her to audition for the show, but at first I didn’t have her in mind for Felicia. But, similar to what happened with Rodney, she just picked up the script and blew everybody away.

 

A lot of the songs in the musical are meant evoke early rock ’n’ roll – Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, doo wop, gospel, genres like that. Did you like that kind of music before diving into this production?
I didn’t listen to it on a regular basis. I love the sound of it, though. I love blues and I love early rock. Music today has been sterilized. Music during that time seemed really rich and organic. Everything was live. Everything was real. It’s been a pleasure to live in that era, through this production.

 

And a big theme of this musical seems to be that music has the capacity to change people’s hearts and minds. The music in the play is reminiscent of classic sounds, or music we’ve heard before. Was it a challenge for you or the actors to identify what it might have been like to be a young person hearing that music for the first time?
I did a lot of research. I’ve always been interested in that era — the late ’50s and ’60s. The fashion, the cars, it certainly looked really cool. It seems to me it was a time when things were just changing so fast. Music was changing. And that must have been exciting for young people, scary for others. The show captures a lot of that change.

 

The success of this musical seems to weigh heavily on a balance between the music — which is raucous and fun — and a storyline full of tension and struggle. Were you thinking about that balance? Or were you trying to lean one way or the other?
It’s really a challenge. First of all, there is a ton of music in this show. Even though it’s a musical, I wanted it to seem as real as possible. That was my answer for it. Let the sets and the costumes be authentic. The acting has to be authentic. I wanted it to have an almost cinematic feel. I just thought, if we achieve that, we can hold the audience’s attention longer. The original production was kind of whimsical. It was staged very well, but to be honest, I thought it was very cartoony; even the fight scenes. We took a lot of that stuff and tried to give it more of an edge. We want to people to be on the edges of their seats with how uncomfortable some of those scenes are.

 

Since LaVilla was nicknamed the Harlem of the South and it had both a complex racial history and a rich musical one, did you draw any inspiration from the neighborhood’s past?
I actually visited the LaVilla museum inside the Ritz Theater shortly after I came on to direct. I definitely wanted to tap into that. I’m originally from Chicago. Went to high school here in Jacksonville. Living in two cities that were instrumental in the development of American music, I couldn’t help but be inspired by where I’m from.

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