The actual Hurt Village was located on Danny Thomas at North Parkway.
Less than half of the seats in the University of Memphis’ Michael D. Rose Theater were filled to hear the world-renowned Debbie Allen speak Thursday night.
But those that were in attendance not only left knowing an ample amount of Allen’s life story, but also with encouragement to dispel any limitations that would keep them from being successful in life.
Allen, 62, dressed in all black, strutted onto the theater’s stage after more than 20 U of M students provided a dance tribute to her while songs from the movie “Fame” played in the background.
“It’s wonderful coming to Memphis. Soon as you get off the plane you can smell the barbeque,” Allen said, breaking the ice with the audience.
The event was titled, “Black Women in American History: Passionate, Powerful, and Proud.” It was one of the university’s many gatherings for Black History Month.
Allen spoke for nearly an hour on a variety of topics including historical black figures; choreographing for stars like Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey; and starring in the television series, “Fame,” in the 1980s.
It wasn’t these experiences that provided the most insight to onlookers. It was Allen’s openness about her upbringing in Houston, TX during the segregation era, and what limitations she and her family faced.
“We couldn’t go to the park, we couldn’t go to the movies, we could only go to the amusement park once a year,” she said. “I remember telling my mother, ‘I want to be a dancer, but if I don’t get any lessons, how will I be a dancer. I need to take classes.’ My mother tried to take me to the best school in Houston, but we grew up with a real racial divide. I grew up where everything was segregated. They weren’t accepting little black girls at the Houston Ballet Foundation where the best trainer was.”
Fortunately, Allen overcame the aforementioned limitations and blossomed into one of the most successful black women in the performing arts. She’s held careers in dancing, acting, choreography, and directing.
Allen emphasized to the audience that it’s significant for a person to find their purpose on earth, before they decide to spearhead into any endeavors.
“When you find your purpose, you find your way to really live life,” Allen said. “I am so happy with who I am, I’m happy with what I do. I don’t have enough hours in the day, but it’s a joy to be here with you, to share this time, and hopefully give you a little piece of myself. Hopefully you’ll see apart of you reflecting in me that will give you the strength to be.”
The event conveyed to listeners that they must avoid allowing the others' perceptions limit them.
“People can’t know your DNA by looking at you. Let them say what they say. You have to know who you are,” Allen said. “You have to be able to look in the mirror and know who is looking back at you. What makes you laugh? What do you care about? What makes you cry? What will you fight about? You have to know that! That’s passion! That is the core of every human existence.”
The Orpheum was packed. And as Million Dollar Quartet shifted into high gear, abandoning narrative for its closing concert format, Grant, the actor playing Sun Studio founder and Rock-and-Roll midwife Sam Phillips, turned to the subdued but Sun-savvy audience and ad libbed: "It's good to be in Memphis." It was February 14, and, judging by the Crowd's ovation, this was a real love affair.
M$Q is a fictionalized account of the one and only occasion when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were all at Sun Studio together. The conceit: Elvis has gone to RCA. Cash and Perkins have both got deals with Columbia but haven't told Sam Phillips yet. And Phillips has a secret too. He's been offered a chance to move to New York and join Elvis at RCA. But as he watches his most famous artists leave for greener pastures he becomes more convinced that he belongs in Memphis and swears he'd rather sell a hundred records made his way that a million with somebody else pulling the strings. It's a resonant moment for people who live in a place where artists and businessmen have so famously gone their own way, for better and for worse. As the real Sam Phillips once told the Flyer's Jackson Baker, "We flat-ass changed the world." And Memphis did. Repeatedly. For a while.
"This is where the soul of a man never dies," the fictionalized Phillips says, surveying a fair approximation of 706 Union Avenue.
I saw both Million Dollar Quartet and Memphis the musical on Broadway only days after the 2010 Tony Awards. Both productions were nominated for big prizes, but only the latter cleaned up. To be fair, Memphis is a more artfully crafted piece of musical theater. M$Q is little more than a good excuse to put bring some iconic early rock, gospel, and R&B songs to the Great White Way. But the big winner, with it's easy pop and power ballads exploits Memphis's legacy while the loser — the loser that's on stage at the Orpheum right now— pays ernest tribute. It's a bittersweet valentine to the city that put Rock-and-Roll on the map.
And here's a fun fact: The cast assembled for this tour make the cats I saw on Broadway look like chumps. This Johnny Cash—Derek Keeling— looks and sounds like the real deal. Cody Slaughter, who was named "The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist" by Elvis Presley Enterprises, has the looks and the moves and acts at least as well as the guy he's playing. Martin Kaye's Jerry Lee Lewis is more of a bantam rooster than killer and Lee Ferris barely conjures the memory of Carl Perkins but both actors bring a lot of heart to the roles and some fine piano pounding and guitar shredding respectively.
When it comes to marrying the dramatic elements to music Jersey Boys is still a more perfect juke box biography. But with four hillbilly hellhounds on his trail Frankie Valli needs to watch his ass.
A day or so after dropping in on The Boys Next Door I received a call from Brent Davis, the executive director for Germantown Community Theater, which is never a bad thing. GCT has a longstanding reputation for cleaning up potty-mouthed plays and he wanted to know if I was surprised to hear a few F-bombs dropped at the Sunday matinee. I wasn't, especially—- and being entirely in agreement with Penn and Teller on the subject of profanity—- I wasn't really interested in talking about the things we do to appease the pinch-faced philistines who've been known to hold our theaters hostage with their purse strings.
Germantown is full of grownups too. And sometimes even the philistines in the crowd like to be treated like adults. But now I'm wandering far off course.
The Boys Next Door isn't a very good play. Or, maybe it's better to say that the show's situationally-linked vignettes are, in almost every case, more satisfying than the whole pizza pie. It is, however, a great vehicle for actors and GCT's production boasts some noteworthy performances by John Richard Reed, Marc Gill, Jeff White, Jason Gerhard, Joseph Johnson, Marler Stone, Emily Peckham, Tamara Wright, and James Dale Green.
The show revolves around Jack who's either a burned out social worker or a directionless slacker who can't stick with a job for more then eight months. He watches over a group home where several intellectually challenged men reside. The show walks a fine line between education and exploitation, with lots of uncomfortable laughter and some nicely managed but still too-obvious tugs at the heartstrings along the way.
I spent two very rewarding years working to create original plays for a group of young adults with a spectacular inventory of special needs. We worked together, ate pizza together, played games, sang and everybody danced, even if they were in a wheelchair. And they all shared their lives with me, telling stories about everything from their day to day struggles with para-transit to romantic fantasies inspired by Disney cartoons to awkwardly candid, and hilariously self-aware accounts of stolen moments and sexual misadventure. There was a lot of comedy and a lot of tragedy and although a lot of these wonderful people would require help for the rest of their lives, there was a lot of personal growth and against-the-odds victories seemed to happen every day. Based on that experience I can say with some authority that Tom Griffin's characters are very real. But they are also incomplete. The exploitation and traumas he hints at are ultimately as superficial as Jack's great epiphany: "I change, but they never do." Or something like that.
The Boys Next Door closes Sunday and fans who value good acting over good writing (cussing not withstanding) may want to give it a spin.
Tamara Wright and Jason Gerhard make a lovely couple and their dances are more inspiring than a vintage clip of Fred and Ginger.
Marler Stone, who pulled double duty as an actor and director, has done better work on both sides of the footlights. His thoughtful use of original music gives the production a cinematic feel and flow. It helps to give the play's weak narrative a little muscle.
For more information: This.
Hetherington: " As long as I have been here I have never known a production of our to sell out the entire run a few weeks before it opened. We had an enormous line which snakes down the hall and the phones rang constantly. They still are, but all the seats are now sold. Everyone is working at full speed ahead to get this production ready for the Centennial Celebration and I am pleased and exhausted to say that it is really kicking my butt."
Readers know I'm no great fan of this show. In fact, this grumptacular review is the first thing I ever wrote for The Memphis Flyer. But this is fantastic news for the U of M.
Now, let the scalping commence!