Next week singer and actress Beverley Knight will star in the UK premiere of Memphis, a multi-award winning musical which is set in 1950s Tennessee, at the height of racial segregation in the United States.
The play follows the story of white DJ Huey Calhoun, who introduces the music of African Americans – rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel – to white audiences, who then considered it to be illegitimate music; the devil’s sound. Calhoun partakes in another major taboo when he starts dating African-American aspiring singer Felicia Farr, played by Knight.
To fully prepare for her role Knight travelled to Memphis, where she also visited the National Civil Rights Museum. “Segregation is over, but they still preserve the whites-only water fountain — and the blacks-only one,” said the singer, describing the legacy of racial segregation in Memphis today.
The British singer noted the importance of music to the African-American Civil Rights Movement, observing that, “Hope, joy and singing was a huge part of the whole movement.”
Knight said the story is one that she can partly relate to as a black woman whose husband is white, of Irish descent. “The idea that if we had both lived in the States up to 30 years ago our relationship would have been illegal is insanity. I can’t quite get my head around that,” she said.
In one powerful scene in the play the interracial couple get physically abused in a racial attack. Knight has said that initially the scene was uncomfortable for her. “The first time I did that scene, I must say I felt pretty sick inside […] that people did that to each other, with no sense of guilt or shame,” she said.
The soul singer also stated that the play remains relevant today. “On a much wider scale for us here in Britain, there’s so much still going on with racial tensions. These issues are relevant now,” she said.
Yet Knight also reflected on the progress in race relations which has occurred since the era of the play, in regards to her personal experiences as a black female singer in a predominantly white society. Whilst Knight’s character sings, “Mamma told me there are limits/ For dark skinned girls/ Stuck in this/ Light skinned world,’ the actress celebrates the opportunities she has been able to enjoy.
Knight performing 'Coloured Woman' from the musical Memphis.
“I’m in my fourth decade, being a woman, being — to a lesser extent — a woman of colour, it’s all supposed to be woe, woe, woe. But it’s been opportunity on opportunity. It’s just fantastic,” said the singer.
Knight received much praise for her previous role in musical The Bodyguard and is expected to shine in Memphis too. The musical’s preview shows begin next Thursday (October 9) at Shaftesbury Theatre.
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