In its 33-year history, Trustus Theatre has used its stage as a magnifying glass, bringing issues to light and forcing audiences to examine their own thoughts and reactions.
But Trustus can put on a foot-stomping, feel-good musical, too.
Case in point is the Tony-winning musical "Memphis," which premieres on Friday, June 29, and runs through Saturday, July 28.
Set in the pre-Civil Rights 1950s, "Memphis" tells the story of Huey Calhoun, a spunky high school dropout who makes it his mission to introduce the world to R&B music, first as the manager of the record department of a Memphis, Tennessee, store and later, as a disc jockey at a local radio station.
Along the way he discovers the power — and heartbreak — of love, of humanity and of life. The show is loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a real-life Memphis DJ who was the first to put a record by Elvis Presley on the air.
Huey actually has two great loves. The first is music, specifically the toe-tapping, high-energy numbers played exclusively at black clubs during that era. The second is Felicia Farrell, an aspiring African-American singer whose honeyed voice draws Huey into a Beale Street club in Memphis one night. He falls for her voice … and then for Felicia herself, pledging to turn the deserving singer into a star.
Along the way, the couple face barriers of every ilk, some expected, others, not so much.
Of course, this being theater, the journey takes place accompanied by gravity-defying dancers and a thrilling, soul-stirring soundtrack.
But while parts of "Memphis" will pull the audience out of their seats to shimmy along with the cast, it’s more than a cotton-candy musical.
“It’s a story that includes themes very true to today — like acceptance, tolerance, and love in a time of division, hate, and intolerance,” says Sebastian Sowell, who plays Felicia.
Dewey Scott Wiley, who is directing the show, agrees.
“'Memphis' is a perfect summer musical, with a great story and wonderful nostalgic music, but at the end, you find yourself saying, ‘wait, there are some things here to talk about,’” she says. “There’s so much there about the choices we make and how society affects our decisions. The show is set in the pre-Civil Rights 1950s, so there’s a lot of uncomfortable language to deal with, too. It was a real challenge for the cast members to say some of their lines. We just don’t speak that way anymore.”
Wiley says she’d originally tried to secure the show back in 2013, but it went on tour instead of being available for production by other groups. Although she was disappointed, she believes that the show is actually more relevant now than it was just five years ago.
“Back in 2013, a lot of people felt like we were making progress on racial issues,” she says. “Now, with all that’s going on in the world, it’s right back in our faces. 'Memphis' is really going to make us talk.”
If you go
WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Thursdays from Friday, June 29, through Saturday, July 28.
WHERE: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St.
TICKETS: $35, Fridays and Saturdays; $30, Thursdays and Sundays; $25, students.