“At the end of the show, we had nothing to say. We were just speechless for a bit,” he recalled. It wasn’t until their subway ride home to Harlem that the white actor and his roommate, a black theater critic, were able to verbalize why “Memphis” had affected them so.
“It was a genuinely moving piece. It was theatrically brilliant and it was so entertaining,” Hines said. “It’s not just a show where people sing and dance. It is about race and the integration of people through the use of music. …”
Set amid the nightclubs, radio stations and recording studios of Memphis, Tenn., during the 1950s, “Memphis” centers on the forbidden romance between a white DJ and a black singer. As their careers rise, their relationship is tested by personal ambition, prejudice and societal pressures.
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“Memphis,” which premiered on Broadway in 2009, was created by David Bryan, keyboard player and pianist for rock band Bon Jovi, and playwright Joe DiPietro, whose credits include the Elvis Presley jukebox musical “All Shook Up.” “Memphis” won four Tony Awards, including best musical.
The current touring production of “Memphis,” which will visit San Luis Obispo on Monday, includes two cast members with Central Coast connections: Joe Ogren, who graduated from San Luis Obispo High School in 2010, and Pat Sibley, a Cal Poly graduate. (Sibley previously performed in San Luis Obispo in professional touring productions of “Oklahoma!” and “Young Frankenstein.”)
Ogren speaks the first line in “Memphis” as a dull disc jockey announcing the title of the song he just played — “Whiter Than You” by Whitey White and The White Tones. The action then cuts to a black DJ in another booth laying down an R&B groove.
As the musical’s main character, Huey Calhoun, puts it, that’s “The Music of My Soul.”
Hines stars as Huey, a good-natured DJ with a passion for R&B and an
exuberant catchphrase (“Hockadoo!”). The actor described Calhoun — who’s modeled after “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips, the first DJ to play an Elvis record on the air — as “quite a character.”
“He’s pretty eccentric and a little quirky, but he’s also got a delightful charm” that’s reinforced by his open attitude toward race, Hines explained. “He’s genuinely colorblind in a very color-heavy 1950s Memphis. That’s something I thought would be an interesting challenge to play.”
When the DJ meets singer Felicia Farrell (Zuri Washington), “Huey is able to put a face to the voice of the music that means so much to him,” Washington said.
Felicia isn’t based on a particular person. “She’s a representation of black culture in the 1950s and early ’60s,” Washington explained, and the countless artists who were denied opportunities because of the color of their skin.
As Felicia sings in “Colored Woman,” “Her struggle is wanting more than she knows she can have,” Washington said. “Unlike Huey, she doesn’t have very much optimism about the way things are.”
Meeting Huey, whose perspective differs so much from her own, is a liberating experience, the actress added. “He allows her to be free where she has been stuck and stagnated her whole life,” she said.
But not everyone supports Huey and Felicia’s relationship, which is illegal in the segregated South. Her club owner brother Delray (Keith McCoy) worries that Huey is putting Felicia at risk — fears that prove justified when racist thugs attack the couple.
Huey’s prejudiced mother, Mama (Sibley), also opposes their union.
“It’s not that she’s an awful person. It’s not that she’s a hateful person. She’s scared,” explained Sibley, adding that Mama represents “the older, white generation that was really against the mixing of the races.” “(Their attitude was) ‘You just don’t do this. You just don’t rock the boat.’ ”
The musical pairs its discussion of mid-century race relations with an original ’50s-style soundtrack that’s “totally hummable and memorable,” Ogren said.
“Not only is the story great, but the music is something you want to go home and buy the soundtrack to,” said Ogren, whose roles in “Memphis” include singer and television personality Perry Como. “You get some country. You get some R&B and you get some classical musical theater show tunes. They did a really good job of incorporating all the styles of the day into this one score.”
Although set in the past, the cast members agreed that “Memphis” — like “Dreamgirls” and “Hairspray” before it — tackles human rights issues that remain relevant to today’s audiences.
“Look at the current state of events in America: Racial tensions are still very high,” Hines said. “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
"Memphis, the Musical"
7:30 p.m. Monday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$60 to $90
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org