By: Sarah Beth Huntley
To be completely honest, I decided to watch the Broadway musical Memphis because it seemed as if it had a focus on telling a story about Black people, specifically with a Black female lead. This was especially intriguing to me as a Black female who rarely sees stories on Broadway told from the viewpoint of people that look like me. And for the first few minutes of the show, I reveled in the stage full of all Black actors performing a style of music specifically crafted by Black people and settled in to watch the rest of the show. I was in awe as Felicia Farrell took the stage in her bedazzled beauty and sang with a voice I would give anything to have. The show had started to get me hooked. And then Huey walked in and the white gaze took over.
For background, the “white gaze” is a term used to define stories that are seen through the lens of a white person, often stories about the empowerment, liberation, or rights of people of color that come to fruition due to the actions of a white person. The late Toni Morrison described it best, saying how it is “as though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.” This is more common than you might think; some popular examples on Broadway: Bring it On, Miss Saigon, The King and I, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc. The white gaze is often working in collaboration with white saviorism, or a white person who helps people of color in a self-serving manner, though not always intentionally. Memphis, like many stories, employs both white saviorism and the white gaze through its overall focus on Huey Calhoun, proving that they are still, sadly culturally relevant.
Within a minute of walking into Delray’s club and becoming the only white person in the room, Huey takes center stage and claims the (Black) music as the music of his soul. He then goes on to use his white status to play Black music for mainstream audiences. This was a good thing though, right? To a certain extent, yes. It was good of him to help Black artists and music become mainstream, especially considering he wasn’t even paid for it in the beginning. However, one of my biggest issues with the show is how the only real stardom that grew out of his programs was his own. Sure, he featured a Black cast on his television program and promoted Black artists both on the radio and on television, but everything came with his name on it. As he grew in fame, the show showed the newspaper articles and photos that only ever used the name Huey Calhoun to describe the shows and concerts he hosted that featured Black artists. The television show that featured an all-Black cast besides him was still called the Huey Calhoun Show. Also, no one on his show (besides Felicia, who I will get to later) became a star due to him. Yes, he highlighted people such as Felicia and Bobby, but no one, due to their presence on the show, found stardom; only Huey ended up becoming a big shot in Memphis due to the programs he hosted.
Felicia, who became a star in the end, was the show’s chance to really focus on the Black experience, especially when it came to gaining mainstream stardom and a white audience. In my opinion, the show did a great disservice to her character, who seemed to be more of a token than a lead. First of all, I was extremely bothered by her accent, which was a strange variation of Southern that, sadly, made her sound less intelligent (which might have been the point). Secondly, after the opening song, Felicia’s importance only came in relation to Huey, with the rest of her story being tied to Huey’s rise in stardom. And, by the end, it became clear that this attachment was holding her back more than it was helping her. In fact, it is Delray and not Huey who helps her reach national acclaim, considering he is the one who gets the record producer from New York to Memphis. And yet, at the end of the play when she is on top while Huey has basically reached insignificance, she tells Huey he is the reason she is where she is and he ends up center stage performing at her national tour. Her attachment to Huey literally only brought her pain, sometimes even physical, and yet she attributed the positive high she had reached in her life to him. This is further proof of white saviorism, as she provides him with an “all thanks to you” speech that places him on a pedestal he is undeserving of.
Also, there is another, more all-encompassing issue that is brought up multiple times in the musical but not ever fully addressed: the theft of Black culture. At the beginning of the show, Huey offers to play Felicia’s music and Delray accuses him of wanting to steal their music. It is an issue brought up several times, often by Delray, throughout the show and is denied by Huey. However, the story of Huey and the show as a whole tells a different tale about the appropriation of Black music. Huey’s rise to fame in music allowed him to be attached to the brand of rock n’ roll more than the Black artists he featured. This is proven through the New York label wanting to bring him but not his Black performers to create a national show. Huey had successfully, although unintentionally, attached rock n’ roll music to a white face as he became the highlight of the programs he hosted, despite their supposed focus on Black artists. The appropriation goes deeper though, as the Black music is referred to both as rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues and confusion grows about who actually originated the rock n’ roll genre. This comes to a head when Felicia explains how “rock n’ roll is just rhythm and blues sped up,” giving a slight nod to the overall, often overlooked, trend of white people to take a part of Black culture and make it their own. This idea transcends beyond the musical, due to the fact that most people would associate rock n’ roll music with white artists despite its Black roots. Although Huey, and maybe even white artists in history, did not mean to make the music seem as if it was more him than those who it originated from, it still seemed that way to white audiences and it definitely felt that way to me.
The white gaze and white saviorism that raged throughout this show, the characterization of Felicia, and the appropriation (both intentional and unintentional) in the show made it apparent to me that it had to have been created by white people. One quick Google search told me that I was, in fact, correct. I also discovered that the story of Memphis was meant to be loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a white DJ known for playing Black records. Although the character of Huey was based on a real person, the story of Felicia and Delray’s club was not and led me to wonder what the purpose was of incorporating that storyline was. The story of Dewey Phillips could not have been told without Black people, however, the employment of several main characters that were Black created a story that would either be successful or not so in telling a good, deep story about a Black community. The creators, probably unknowingly, placed a burden on themselves that was completely unnecessary by creating the stories of Felicia, Delray, Gator, and others. By fabricating these characters, they unintentionally shifted the narrative from a story about the rise and fall of a man’s success to how a white man helped Black artists become successful. They created a story about white saviorism when they absolutely did not have to, and that was their first mistake.
Do I think that white creators should not be allowed to tell Black stories? Absolutely not. However, I think the creators, due to their whiteness, overlooked the lens in which they were telling an overwhelmingly Black story. Yes, the main character and main focus of Memphis was Huey, however, they also focused on Felicia’s fame, Bobby’s growth from janitor to performer, Gator’s newfound willingness to speak, and Delray’s steady openness to white people. It is important for white people telling the stories of people of color to focus on the narrative they are crafting, for there are so many stories that try to make a point of elevating Black voices and stories, but feeling the need for a white protagonist to be the amplifier of those voices. Broadway needs to learn from shows such as Memphis as they continue to create stories about and for people of color. People of color should not be diversity tokens or ways to make a white protagonist better by proving they are not prejudiced. People of color should be able to tell their own stories about their struggles, their successes, and their lives. The story of Huey Calhoun (and Dewey Phillips) is not necessarily a bad one. However, I hope next time someone goes to create a show like that of Memphis, they employ characters of color as more than a pedestal for white protagonists to step on.