Minor: American Sign Language/deaf studies
Class of 2016
The African American Arts Alliance has a long history of being creating art that pushes boundaries and engages our own community in activism. Though membership has waxed and waned since its establishment in 1991 (or 1988 if you count the Black Arts League, 4A’s direct predecessor) and it shifted from a visual art group into the realm of theater, this mission to uphold art by and for Black people has remained constant.
In the Spring of 2014 4A produced its first musical Aida – the biggest production of its history at the time. Spring of 2015 brought The Wiz – a celebration of Black joy that subverts a traditionally Whitewashed narrative. Now it is 2016 and we are producing Memphis: The Musical. To say it has been a wild ride would be an understatement. As 4A has grown immensely (in the last five years membership has ranged from about eight people to fifty) we have had to balance that growth with staying true to our organization’s core values.
As a member who joined during the early phase of this growth (the Fall 2014 production of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye) I have watched the process in utter fascination. Memphis is a lot of firsts for our organization: first woman as musical director, first non-Black director, biggest set, first cast with so many designated “White” characters. The plot follows an interracial love story between a white disc jockey (loosely based off of Dewey Phillips) and a Black blues singer in 1950s Memphis. It documents the appropriating of R&B music into rock n’ roll while highlighting the struggles of an interracial relationship in a community that was heavily segregated.
The show itself is also relatively young, debuting on Broadway only in 2009 and 4A is only the second amateur performance group to be given the rights. Understandably, the writers of the show like to keep close tabs on it and as such, we have been confined to many rules and regulations regarding casting, use of promotional materials, exact use of the script, and records of the show.
This can be frustrating given what our organization stands for. In our current membership our group is overwhelmingly feminist, racially conscious, and relatively queer. Our first instinct in looking at the script was to analyze it through the paradigm of intersectional politics: “what genders are present?” “How are the Black female characters developed?” “What is the moral of the story?” It became clear over time that these were perhaps the wrong questions. The truth of the script is that though Memphis brings up many important concerns about racial justice, it does not allow time to ruminate on them. The story of white men becoming interested in and then profiting off of Black music is not a happy one, yet the musical gets its happy ending by showing the opposite result on a micro level. The Black female lead becomes successful while the white man who refused to leave Memphis with her ends up poor and lonely.
Segregation is referred to several times in the play and racially fueled violence is central to the plot, however it is sometimes unclear whether these instances are included to bring awareness or solely to advance the drama in the scene at hand. Additionally, lines that explicitly call out the white male lead’s hand in cultural appropriation never seem to land in the full weight they would in other 4A shows. Another issue we had to confront in casting was the fact that the show only deals in Black and White. We had to decide where non-Black people of color fit into our show. Even if we are not able to change problematic aspects of the script, we are able to control the show in these smaller choices.
The fact of the matter is that Memphis is light-hearted in nature. Though it is different than past 4A shows, it is just as entertaining. When you consider this production in the context of 4A history it runs deeper than the actual spectacle itself. This production has been symbolic of the breadth of things 4A can achieve people it can reach. Though the story may not always be as insightful as we want it to be, it is important to situate yourself in a place where you remember that only three years ago, 4A had been cut off from the Theater Arts Council as well as SAC. If nothing else, Memphis is our proof that 4A is never down and out.