The White Gaze Strikes Again: How Memphis (And Broadway) Fails to Tell the Stories of People of Color

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.

“Western People Funny”: How Anna’s White Influence Led to Tuptim’s Downfall in The King and I

They think they civilize us whenever they advise us / To learn to make the same mistake / That they are making too. 

These lines follow the King’s wives singing about how “western people funny” in the song of the same name. This is a theme that occurs several times throughout the musical, and unsurprisingly so, considering the premise of the show is that an English woman and her son have moved to Siam in order to teach the King’s children. Throughout the show, Anna exercises  her influence in various ways: through her teachings to the children, her interactions with the King, her “civilized” party for the Englishmen, etc. Her push for things to be done as she sees “proper” is often shown without negative consequences, leading the audience to believe that her way is, in fact, the better way of life for everyone. However, Anna’s Western teachings in an Eastern culture were bound to have negative consequences, and this is the case in the form of one very important character, Tuptim. Over the course of the show, Anna “helps” Tuptim both in learning about Western culture and its ideals as well as in her secret relationship with Lun Tha. This help, despite its good intentions, only leads Tuptim to further pain and suffering with the death of her lover. Due to the cultural differences between Western and Eastern gender roles, Anna’s good-intentioned, but ignorant attempts to help Tuptim eventually lead to Tuptim’s downfall. 

Tuptim and Anna are characterized versions of the stereotypes about Eastern and Western women, which is portrayed both by their character and the actresses’ portrayal of them (for this essay, Na-Young Jeon and Kelli O’Hara as Tuptim and Anna, respectively, from the 2015 revival). In Tuptim’s first appearance, it is apparent that she is important and different from the other women, for the King’s many wives sit around him in purples and deep reds, while she enters wearing white and gold. This contrast continues throughout the musical, with her clothing constantly separating her from the sameness of the other wives. As she enters the room, Tuptim lowers herself before the king in submission, submitting not only to him, but also to the stereotype of the beautiful and submissive Eastern woman. She attempts to break out of this stereotype almost as quickly as she falls into it as she speaks back at the king for accusing her of being a spy, but ultimately becomes submissive to him and his wishes as she accepts her fate as his “present.” Na-Young Jeon illustrates this conflict of tone and actions through the way she fires back at the king in tone while still keeping her face lowered to him as all the women — besides Anna — do. This surprising move by Tuptim is less surprising later on when she mentions wanting to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, referring to it as The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Her knowledge of the novel shows a previous exposure to Western culture, and possible influence, which explains why she both speaks clearer English than Lady Thiang and the other wives and her less submissive nature than the other wives. However, her failure to impose this knowledge coincides with her lack of control in her current situation and in her culture as a female. 

In contrast, Anna represents everything Tuptim aspires to from Western culture. Anna is independent, knowledgeable, and unafraid to stand up for herself. In Anna’s first appearance, she travels alone with her son to an unknown place as the captain attempts to warn her what she is getting into and she promises that she can take care of herself. This independence and complete control of her life and destiny is something that Tuptim desperately lacks and, simultaneously, wants. Kelli O’Hara also uses her costuming and blocking to represent Anna’s “betterness.” In contrast with the red background and surroundings of Siam, Anna wears a lighter colored dress to emphasize her gentleness in a more vicious or barbaric setting. Her dress also serves as a costume that sets her apart from the other women in Siam, and, unlike Tuptim, serves as a constant reminder of her Westerness and its presence in a very different culture. She also highlights her independence further by positioning herself at the higher point of the ship, forcing the captain to look up at her, rather than down as a man in Siam would. O’Hara speaks with a similar tone of voice as Jeon’s Tuptim, however she addresses the man with her head held up in defiance of his questioning her capabilities as a woman alone in the East. Although similar in their characters’ feelings and ideals, Anna and Tuptim are seen by and placed in society completely differently due to the way others view them based on their respective cultures. For Anna, her independence is something that can be supported because it is a Western ideal, however, Tuptim’s culture forces her to be submissive, especially to a man with power over her such as the King.

The King’s relationship with Anna and Tuptim is also very indicative of how the two women are viewed differently despite their similarities. Throughout the musical, Tuptim maintains a quiet resistance to the King due to her love for Lun Tha. Although he is displeased with how she does not feel honored to be with him, he does not show any disdain for her until she openly opposes him during the performance of her play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As the children perform, she hints at her personal connection to the story of Eliza through Na-Young Jeon’s white and gold costume that is similar to Eliza’s (and also correlates to the only other scene where she stood up to the King in the beginning) as well as her hesitation to name certain characters by their character names rather than who they represent in her life, such as Simon and Eliza. However, her emotions become too much and she openly disrespects the King as she lets him know that she feels he has mistreated her and now holds her in slavery as Simon held Eliza. His reaction to this and her later running away is to punish her. Though it is apparent that the King despises women defying him, the violence of his actions is seen as extreme and, most importantly, surprising. This is due to how his multiple arguments with Anna throughout the show have never led to him lashing out violently against her. 

The King’s difference in reactions to the two women is impacted by his different view of Anna due to her Westerness. He constantly refers to Anna as “scientific” and Lady Thiang helps Anna understand this when she questions the head wife for constantly calling her “sir.” Lady Thiang informs her how the King has taught them that women can not be knowledgeable and teachers, or “scientific,” because that is a man’s place. Him allowing Anna — a woman — to teach and share her knowledge, however, shows a conflict to this idea which lets the audience know that the King sees Anna as another. It is obvious that this difference comes from the alienness of their cultures. As the only white woman in the show and the protagonist, the show itself and the King place Anna in an elevated position due to her Westerness (code for whiteness), allowing her to get away with things the King often does not allow women to do, such as argue with him or give him advice, while continuing to show her and her actions, though oppositional, in a positive light. In opposition to this idea, Tuptim, as an Easterner, is shown as being out of place for taking a similar stance to Anna. Her sameness to the women around her, which is illustrated to the similar style clothing of the other wives despite the difference in color, keeps her trapped within the confines of the King’s ideas about how a woman should be and, because she is not white like Anna, he is unable to disassociate her from these ideas. Her Easterness is in direct correlation with her lowliness in his eyes and places her at the bottom of the spectrum versus Anna and her whiteness/Westerness at the top.

The biggest question to be answered is how Anna directly influenced Tuptim to act against the conventions of her culture. Although Anna’s general presence seemingly made the greatest impact as a whole, there were many things she did that directly helped Tuptim develop a Western mindset. First, when the King said Tuptim could help Anna teach the wives English, she begged Anna to lend her books, specifically Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her lending the book to Tuptim allowed Tuptim to understand the morals and beliefs of (some) Westerners that holding someone against their will was wrong and she connected these ideals to her own relationship with the King. Anna also talked to the women about the importance of true love, something they obviously did not consider since they were all in a polygamous relationship with the King and not in love with him but merely doing their duty as his wives. However, her talk influenced Tuptim who was already in love with Lun Tha. Anna went a step further in helping this secret relationship by providing them with ways to be together. There is even a moment in the show when Lun Tha remarks how if Anna were to leave it would be impossible for them to ever be together without her help. The combinations of these ideas and actions facilitated by Anna helped Tuptim commit the acts that went against the King. If she hadn’t introduced Tuptim to her ideals about love and freedom, Tuptim would never have stood up to the King during her play or tried to run away with Lun Tha. She would have remained like the other women: silent and submissive. 

Anna’s insistence upon helping everyone in the castle be more like her when it comes to ideals and morals was good-intentioned, but her ignorance and lack of understanding of the culture made her efforts have some negative impacts. Just as Lady Thiang and the wives said in “Western People Funny,” she believed that her way of life was the proper way and tried to impose that on them only to make them also make mistakes. Her influence led to Lun Tha, Tuptim, and the King’s death, as well as the influence of Western culture being within the mind of the new heir to the throne. Although Siam had many internal problems, Anna was still wrong for imposing her culture and ideals there in order to make it “better.” The show sets her up to be the hero of the story because, like the white creators of the show, she is showing how “white is right.” This idea is especially wrong on the part of the creators through their presentation of Tuptim for making it seem that she would be unable to have the agency to make decisions for herself without the help and influence of a white person. Their ignorant ideas about Eastern cultures and people’s need to have Western influence in order to have a better way of life creates the idea that one is inherently better despite the fact that one cannot be better than the other. In today’s society, though, in both the world and the conflicts of white casting in The King and I over the years are working to deconstruct that idea and to show that what is more important is seeing things from multifaceted perspectives in order to discover the “right” way to live.