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CultureMob Theater Preview: 'Memphis' star discusses how show educates about race in America

Felicia Boswell Bryan Fenkart and Will Mann in MEMPHIS - photo by Paul Kolnik

Will Mann gets to play the heart of the touring musical Memphis, opening this week at the 5th Avenue Theatre in downtown Seattle. The role of Bobby, the janitor, is of a joyous, hardworking man who is the mediator and peace-maker of the production. At least, that’s how Will sees it. “It may not be explicit in the script, but that’s who my Bobby is,” he says in a phoner, as he gets ready for previews.

The musical is a little bit non-fiction and a little bit fiction, focusing on the 1950s and the cracking open of R&B, and early rock-and-roll, into mainstream radio. The fictional character, Huey, a white guy who falls both for black music and a black musician, pushes the boundaries to get attention for the music that he loves.

CM asked Will to focus on racial issues and his personal experiences, as well. “Bobby is just trying to get through his job and enjoy his life. It’s not about making big strides or changes, it is just a normal person’s life. He’s the open mind from the very beginning. He doesn’t think Huey is automatically a bad guy because he’s white, or automatically think Huey is out of place. What’s interesting about Bobby is he reacts like the audience would.”

Will thinks that Memphis has a real authenticity to it that he enjoys and feels proud to be a part of. “I have parents who grew up in the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The story and ideas aren’t new to my experience. Obviously it’s a musical, and I know that protagonists and ingénues (often, in musicals) fall in love way too quickly, but for those two (Huey and Felicia), their relationship isn’t about race. It’s everyone else’s problem, not theirs.

“And (another aspect is) the draw to move north to feel more accepted. That’s so real. Thousands migrated to feel more equal. The beatings feel authentic. People got beat up for a whole lot less. Definitely, an interracial couple kissing in public might be worth death (at that time) to some people.

“I (also) like that the end is not the perfect happy ending. She has to follow her dreams and he has to confront his demons. I appreciate that.”

Will thinks that, if young people find it difficult to understand that interracial romances were forbidden and even illegal, there is a modern parallel right in front of them, that makes them immediately relate. “We have another civil rights fight happening in our society. Today, gay people are struggling to have equal rights on all fronts. And I think what our story is telling is pertinent to that.

“(Young people) know what’s happening now with rights and with the election coming up. And the beating is not that different from gay bashing and love is love no matter what race you fall for. I think those themes run very true today.

“We look back to 50 years ago and how preposterous it feels that a white man and black woman can’t get married. And we’ll hopefully look back 50 years from now and wonder why it was illegal for two people who love each other to get married.”

Will is a classically trained actor and at one point focused on opera, but he feels his job is to be a utility player. Whatever role is called for, he will do it. “My job is to be as fully capable as I can be. I will sing gospel and be as ethnic as you need me to be. But if you’re doing Pirates of Penzance (I can do that, too). A big part of my job is what I look like and who I am. It’s undeniable. I’m 6 feet 3 inches and 300 pounds. It’s just the same for a 5 foot blonde girl. For me, casting by race is not offensive to me. It’s an acceptance of what it is that I do.”

However, he tells a couple of stories about experiences in Chicago that took him by surprise. “I got coaching to be a voice over actor. I paid a lot of money to train, to get a demo recorded and went to an agent, and she gave me material to try for 10 different voice overs.

“Every commercial has its own style. A Jeep commercial has a certain voice. A McDonald commercial said “ethnic” and I read it, and she said, ‘It’s not ethnic enough. I want you to sound African American.’ I didn’t know what she meant. What is sounding African American like? It was a shock to me. (But) we see it every day in advertising.

“Another time, I was walking home in Chicago and I enjoy walking and it was snowing and I was enjoying the snow, and an unmarked car pulls up and I saw guns, but no uniforms, no badges. They said, ‘Put your hands on your head.’ ‘Do you want to see my id?’ ‘No just put your hands on your head. We’re the police.’ They handcuffed me and threw me in the back of their car. A young guy a few blocks away got beat up. I hear on the police radio they’re looking for an African American male, wearing all black and carrying a back pack. I had a red jacket and no backpack.

“They take me in (to the station) and the guy who got beat up sees me and says, ‘That’s not him.’ They un-handcuff me and ask me what I do. I tell ‘em I’m in (the touring show of) Billy Elliott. ‘Oh,’ says one, ‘the wife and I are going to see that.’ ‘Well, you enjoy yourself.’ They didn’t even take me back. I had to walk back in the snow.”

So, does he feel that the musical is helping people understand about racial injustice? “It’s a good reminder. People can see this and understand that it’s not over. It’s not just entertainment. It’s something people go home and talk about.”

For more information, go to Memphis is in previews and runs through October 7.

Will Mann