Who deserves more recognition in the story of rock ‘n’ roll: the black
artists who created the sound or the white men who brought it to the
masses? Memphis focuses on the latter, building a musical around a
white DJ, Huey Calhoun (Liam Quealy), who fights the racism and segregation
of his hometown by playing “race records” on the radio. Memphis,
now playing at Porchlight, is driven by good intentions, but it fails to
recognize the full scope of the issues. Huey, a shining emblem of white
privilege, is presented as a brave hero.
Huey openly admits this as he fumbles his way through life and things
typically work out in his favor, but the show skirts past the trauma that
Huey’s decisions cause for his black girlfriend, Felicia (Aeriel Williams).
The book by David Bryan, best known as the keyboardist for Bon Jovi, does a
disservice to the black characters by largely ignoring their personal
struggles. Felicia and her brother, Delray (Lorenzo Rush Jr.), sing about
their harrowing situations in powerful songs like “Colored Woman” and
“She’s My Sister,” but these numbers reinforce that there is much more to
explore with these characters.
Daryl D. Brooks’s direction has verve but lacks depth, and while the music
is rousing, the scenes that bridge the songs often venture into shtick. The
central romance is especially flimsy, and the evolution of that
relationship over years doesn’t show in the performances. This talented
ensemble puts on a fun show, but an inspiring message of perseverance and
change isn’t enough to overcome shallow storytelling. v