Smile Politely

Memphis heats up on the Parkland stage

Next up at Parkland College’s Harold and Jean Miner Theatre is Memphis, winner of the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. This high energy, yet gut wrenching show is set to heat up the stage, while providing perspective on racial tensions within the city of Memphis during the 1950s. 

The story follows disc jockey Huey Calhoun, loosely based off of real-life DJ Dewey Phillips, the first white DJ in Memphis to play black music on a white-dominated radio station. Huey’s love for Memphis’ underground music leads him to fall in love with singer Felicia Farrell.  Their path as they navigate their passion for music and each other is rocky, as they are matched with society’s harsh views on interracial relationships.

I had the privilege to discuss this exciting upcoming production with director Jeff Dare.

Smile Politely: As a director, you see the show over and over again. Are there any moments within Memphis that still make you smile?

Dare: We have a delightful supporting cast in Memphis. Ray Essick plays an exceedingly white DJ who is hilarious on the radio mic. J’Lyn Hope is a natural scene stealer as early Rock N Roll singer Wailin’ Jo (we got special permission from the show’s writer, Joe DiPietro, to play this character as a woman). Our group numbers still give me the chills, like “Underground” and “Radio”. But nothing can top “Say a Prayer,” the somber Act 1 closer set in the style of a gospel ballad after a hateful act of racial violence.

SP: Besides Memphis, what other productions have brought to life?

Dare: Here in Champaign, I directed CUTC’s productions of Avenue Q (2012) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2017). I provided music direction for Into the Woods for CUTC, and for Fiddler on the Roof and Hair for the Illini Union Board musicals. Before that, I worked with Petting Zoo Productions in Downers Grove. In terms of acting, I played the part of Jud Fry in Oklahoma!, CUTC’s first production back on the Virginia Theatre stage, as well as Rev. Moore in Footloose, Zoser in Aida, and Harold Hill in The Music Man.


SP: What audiences do you hope to reach with this story?

Dare: I’m hoping that this is for all of the Champaign community. If it were a movie, I’d give it a PG-13 rating, for adult language and situations. The messages here are important for everyone.

SP: Any concluding thoughts?

Dare: When my wife and I went to Memphis, TN for New Years Eve, we saw Beale St, where much of Memphis takes place. The birthplace of the blues and Rock n Roll. Less than a mile away, we saw the rifle used to murder Dr. King. African-American music and the struggle for civil rights are closely linked in the history of our country, and we tried to bring these two ideas together in our telling of this story.


Photos courtesty of Jeff Dare and HeatherAnn Layman.

Memphis, directed by Jeff Dare and music direction by Noah Scott Larson, will be performed at Parkland College’s Harold and Jean Miner Theatre on April 5, 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21 at 7:30 p.m. and April 15, 22 at 3 p.m. For tickets and more information, click here.

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