I’ve got Memphis on my mind, and I can’t think of a better week for it to be there. Not Memphis the city—where I’ve never been, though it is now officially on my must-visit list—but Memphis the show. I know, I’m a little late to this fan party, but I finally saw Memphis at Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theater, where it is making a triumphant 3-week return to its pre-Broadway launching pad. In 2009, Memphis went from Seattle to New York, where it played more than a thousand shows and won four Tony awards, including best musical.
What struck me as I watched, at the fevered height of this Presidential election season, was how much life in America has changed since the early 1950s. And how much it has stayed the same.
Memphis tells the story of how Blues music crossed the previously un-crossable radio color bar, paving the way not only for the explosion of rock ‘n roll but for the beginning of the breakdown of segregation as a Southern American institution. How long ago it seems, this ancient time when mixed-race marriages were against the law in many states. How far away, this place where a white record producer could not have dinner with an African-American singing star at most Memphis restaurants. And yet: as those of us inside the 5th Avenue thrilled to the dazzling musicianship, dancing and acting onstage, many people outside that magical zone were glued to their screens, large and small, watching as Mitt Romney tried to explain what he meant when he wrote off 47 percent of voters as shiftless freeloaders. Sixty years after the events of Memphis, Romney was willfully pressing all the same old stereotypical buttons in an effort to win support from wealthy white donors. We get it, he seemed to be saying to guests at that secretly videotaped fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida. We in this room understand who matters in America: Us.
It has been widely noted that Romney made no mention of Americans in uniform in his convention speech. Nor did he give a Labor Day shout-out to actual workers—aka people with jobs, as opposed to the “job creators” he loves to talk about. Americans who put their lives on the line, but pay no taxes, are not the voters Romney wants. Americans who work hard for a paycheck but never make enough to write an income tax check? Ditto. Not his kind of voter. Latinos, immigrants, people of color? Romney might pay attention to you, IF you pay taxes, like him. Like him? Hmmm, maybe not so much. The tax returns he finally released show he paid 14.1 percent on his taxable income, which comes mostly from investments—but of course, as writer Anne Lamott tweeted, “Oops, he accidentally forgot to include those rascally Swiss bank and Cayman Island funds again.”
Getting back to Memphis. When politics gets tiresome, there’s just nothing more refreshing than the performing arts. Memphis is a union show, of course, employing more than two dozen wildly talented people who can act, sing and dance all at the same time, eight (sometimes nine!) shows a week. And then there are the ten musicians and the enormous crew. So what you’re watching, at a show like this, is something that no single person built alone. And if you look at the fine print in your program, you’ll see that Memphis got some grants from the city, state and county.
Union cast and crew? Government grants? A story about people crossing barriers of race and class? Sounds like Mitt Romney’s worst nightmare. That’s OK. He can keep his job-creators and his Boca Raton donors—and leave Memphis to the rest of us.
“Introduction to Memoir Writing” started last night at Seattle Central. I had such a good time—I’m glad I already signed up to teach it again in January!
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.