Back in the late ’40s, when a talented young blues guitarist named Riley B. King began playing on Memphis radio station WDIA, he became so popular so quickly that it was decided he needed a new radio name. So he adopted one from an almost two-mile avenue, then an incubator of some of the best blues music around — sounds that inspired his own. Before the name was shortened to “B.B.,” they called him the Beale Street Blues Boy.
To kick off its 2014-15 season, the Arkansas Repertory Theater will resurrect part of the storied rock ‘n’ roll legacy of that street and that city with its production of the musical “Memphis,” opening Friday, Sept. 5. The show tells a story of forbidden love between Felicia, a talented black club singer played by Jasmin Richardson, and Huey, the first white disc jockey to spin black records for a mainstream white audience, played by Brent DiRoma.
Huey’s character is loosely based on “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips, known for airing a mix of white and black music on Memphis radio station WHBQ throughout the 1950s, as the African-American civil rights movement began taking strides toward legal equality in streets, in schools and in the Supreme Court. The show’s no biopic, but for the cast, the truths of history — and the present day for that matter — can’t be separated from the fiction of a musical.
“My mother was two years older than Emmett Till when he died,” said Tony Perry, who plays Felicia’s brother Delray. “I grew up hearing his story. I heard stories of [my parents] being in situations where they were in the wrong neighborhood and were told about it, or whatever.
“You find these stories that you can understand, and then you relate them to what the character’s struggle is so that you can bring some life to it — because those are real things.”
Director Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, who also teaches as an associate professor of performing arts at Elon University, pointed to examples like the treatment of women in areas in the Middle East and the treatment of Muslims in American airports after 9/11.
“Ferguson,” she said. “This [show] finishes in ’58, so from ’58 to 2014 there have been happenings all along the way.
“There are still many, many places where folks teach and continue to pass along what I would call ancient beliefs that are wrong,” she said. “And as soon as something happens where fear strikes in any way, shape or form, people are quick to form opinions and shut themselves off from reproachment.”
Indeed, while the show retains a heavy emphasis on the relationship between black and white communities in Memphis in the ’50s, it also speaks to broader discrimination and, likewise, hope for reconciliation independent of the mid-20th-century African-American struggles for equality.
“If a show could have a color scheme — pun intended — [‘Memphis’] touches every palette,” DiRoma said. “Everyone’s experienced in some way, shape or form being put down. Everyone has experienced in some way, shape or form the joy in music. And you relate to all these experiences, this whirlwind of realness.”
Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi’s keyboard player, David Bryan, co-wrote the musical in 2001. It opened on Broadway in October 2009 and won a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2010. Bryan told Broadway.com in a 2009 interview that the first song he wrote was “Music of My Soul,” which DiPietro called an “I want” song, wherein the character tells everyone what he yearns for.
Huey sings the number to tell the black clubgoers, who eye him suspiciously, that he embraces the soul music of W.C. Handy, Ray Charles and B.B. King, in contrast to what his father taught him, that “white should stay with white.”
In fact, a legacy of improvisation, of “playing from the soul,” as it were, is tied up in the musicality of so many of Huey’s influences that he champions it himself. One day, when asked to read a beer advertisement over the airwaves, Huey, who can’t read, improvises the commercial and caps it with his now-famous cry, “Hockadoo!”
“‘Hockadoo’ is the embodiment of joy in music, the joy that Huey particularly finds in music,” DiRoma said. “It’s not a word. I don’t think it means anything, but I think it stands for everything — the ability to go, ‘What the hell, let’s go throw our hands up and just listen’ — tune in and tune out at the same time.”
But perhaps most importantly, “Memphis” tells the story of people tuning in together, regardless of the barriers that divided them in the past.
“Art makes you, whether it’s theater, pure music, painting, whatever it is — you begin to connect on a different level,” Kurdziel-Formato said. “It also helped to forward civil rights because people were able to understand one another on a higher plane as opposed to looking at somebody externally and being afraid because they were born, quote, ‘different.’ The music speaks to everybody.”
“Memphis” runs from Sept. 5 through Sept. 28. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Single-ticket prices range from $30 to $65. The Rep’s Producing Artistic Director Bob Hupp will lead a panel discussion with “Memphis” cast members at noon on Thursday, Sept. 4 at the Clinton School of Public Service. The performance on Wednesday, Sept. 17 will be interpreted for the hearing impaired.