Relating to Race Over Dinner: "Memphis" in Fort Collins

How good could theatre while eating be? Better than one might think, would be the answer. Aside from the issues of dinner theater in general, there is a compelling reason to acknowledge that this experience of seeing and feeling the Tony award winning show "Memphis," is a surprising one in several ways.

For one, let's take the issue of regional theater. Coming from New York, I always saw regional theater and touring companies as quaint more than as crucial vehicles to deliver important pieces of work away from the city that never sleeps. Kurt Terrio, theater producer and director and owner of the Midtown Arts Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, talked about the need for affordable theater, and about how having dining be part of the occasion can also remove some of the obstacles involved in traveling significant distances.

When I spoke with him, together with some members of the cast, they enlightened me about the feat and sense of accomplishment that has come from performing in Fort Collins and in other locations that in fact happen to attract a huge percentage of actors, directors, choreographers, dancers, etc. who happen to also be very talented.

A propos of compelling, seeing "Memphis" is about as timely as one can get, given the intensification of attention to racial conflicts, especially regarding the rapport between segments of African American populations in various cities, and law enforcement. Fort Collins doesn't have those problems, since it seems to the naked eye to have fewer African Americans in the whole of it, than "Memphis" had on stage. Even so, the issues are human ones, and any of us who loves music will be moved by the struggles of the under the radar DJ Huey Calhoun, a white man from Memphis, radically transformed music history by starting to play "black" music, gospel and rhythm and blues, on mainstream stations.

In fact, in this play that I had never seen in New York, and which so surprised because of the outstanding level of all the performances (with kudos to the director, Jordan Nichols, who served as choreographer as well, and hails from Memphis to boot), the surprises continued to come in the way you/I came to feel about the variety of characters during the evening. Huey is a great example, because he seems headstrong and impulsive and lacking in extensive emotional maturity. On the other hand, he has serious courage and vision, and wow, there is the thing that he truly was not a racist. The music was the music of his soul, and he didn't get the problem with playing and sharing it. In fact Evan who plays him, loves the role also for the many ways it's been played in different productions, and the chance for character development in a role that also surprises, in being much more layered than what you see at the beginning.

In terms of dinner theater itself in this context, it seems important to add that the evening (or matinee) is a richer experience, since the actors are all involved in serving as well, so both they and audience members get to relate on different levels to one another. Also there are drinks and dinner, and then the show begins; dessert and bill paying come in intermission when the people you just saw as stars that could bring you to tears, come back to serve you again.

Michael Wordly, who comes from Miami, wanted to play the role of Gator when he first saw "Memphis" in New York. His voice rocks the house, also because of a dramatic transition between not speaking and vocalizing in spellbinding ways. He talked about how some people have apologized to him, saying they never realized how bad the racism had been, and to him it has felt genuine. And people do cry when he sings, but there are other moments that may be tear provoking as well.

Danielle Summons, the female lead, spoke of the incredibly supportive climate within the whole cast. She came to Fort Collins, two weeks before the play would start and she couldn't sing because of the altitude (a serious thing to acclimate to) and how nobody judged or was rejecting. She considers coming to Fort Collins, as part of making it in the world of theater and as such is both proud and moved.

Julia Smith, a box office staffer, director and actor herself, echoed a respect for the talent of the actors, and how gratifying it has been to be part of casting (in New York as well!) and then seeing a troupe come together in such harmony and connection. She spoke of the hardships on actors, and of the small the percentage of actors that get to be on Broadway.

When it comes to rejection, as many of us have heard, theater can be gruesome in its power and habit of rejecting. And even this, at least for me, was part of the lesson that we receive every time we assume things--or people-- to be one way only. The cast--the entire cast--had the opportunity to discuss their own experiences of the racial divide in our country, but mostly in terms of their personal involvements. And in talking to a few of them, I opened up to their vulnerabilities as actors, as people passionate about theater who are told every day by relatives and friends to let go of impossible dreams. As someone speaking to them in person and as having been a member of the audience, I can't help but be thankful that they are fighting for their rights to pursue their own dreams.

Lastly, I'd say, if you can, see the play, feel it. Let's consider too, that regional theater, close to home, may be one way for us to humanize issues too many of us have lost an ability to talk, think and feel about.

Note: "Memphis" runs, in Fort Collins, through May 30.