Memphis makes the birth of rock all about the white dude | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Memphis makes the birth of rock all about the white dude

Porchlight's production is fun, but lacks depth.


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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

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