© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

COCA’s summer musical ‘Memphis’ prepares kids to deal with race relations through theater, music

COCA's summer musical, "Memphis," is set in a 1950s Memphis underground rock n' roll bar.
Center of Creative Arts
COCA's summer musical, "Memphis," is set in a 1950s Memphis underground rock n' roll bar.

For Duane Foster, the Center of Creative Arts’ (COCA) production of “Memphis” has several parallels to this time two years ago, when the non-profit arts organization produced the musical “Ragtime.”

For one, both musicals delve deeply into race relations and issues of diversity in the United States during previous time periods.

For two, the poignancy of those storylines became paramount given the productions’ proximity to high-profile police shootings of black men.

For three, the stories are both acted out by a combination of COCA students and community members.

Two years ago, Foster, who is the fine arts coordinator and choir director for the Normandy Schools Collaborative, sat in the audience of “Ragtime.”

“Who would have known just a month after ‘Ragtime’ closed …?” Foster began to say while talking with St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter.

Gheremi Clay, Philip Woodmore and Duane Foster.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Gheremi Clay, Philip Woodmore and Duane Foster.

A month after “Ragtime” closed, Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.  Suddenly, the lessons Foster saw acted out had real-life implications.

“As a director and as a teacher, I was so confident knowing those kids had the opportunity to go through that, a workshop to deal with race relations in the United States,” Foster said. “I imagine that they then approached Ferguson with many different perspectives, but many healthy perspectives. And then here we go again, two years later, dealing with what we’re having in this country with diversity issues and racial tension, with the campaign, the election year. Things coming out of certain candidates’ mouths in regards to race. Here we have ‘Memphis,’ which is dealing with diversity again, but celebrating diversity.”

Foster jumped at the opportunity to direct “Memphis,” alongside COCA’s vocal music director Philip Woodmore. The summer musical, COCA’s twelfth, opens tonight at the Edison Theatre at Washington University.

The story is loosely based on that of Memphis disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first white DJs to play R&B music in the 1950s. In its run on Broadway, the musical won four Tony Awards in 2010.

“It was an interesting situation where the younger generation took to the music and the parents had to struggle with that—it brought in the idea of integration,” Foster said.

In the musical, the story centers on Huey Calhoun (a fictionalized version of Phillips) and his relationship with Felicia, an African American singer. Both characters frequent an underground, black rock n’ roll bar in 1950s Memphis and that’s where much of the musical’s action takes place.

Woodmore and “Memphis” cast member Gheremi Clay joined Foster in-studio to discuss this year’s musical and share some musical numbers from it:

Related Event

What: COCA Presents "Memphis"
When: Friday, July 29 at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, July 30 at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m.
Where: Edison Theatre at Washington University, 6445 Forsyth, St. Louis, MO 63105
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards,Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

Stay Connected
Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.