Theatrical Outfit’s season kicks off with Tony-winning musical ‘Memphis’

Artistic director Tom Key: “This is our season of courage”
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Photo by Chris Bartelski

Tom Key, artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, calls this upcoming season a “season of courage.” It kicks off this month with the Tony award-winning Memphis, the story of a white radio DJ in the 1950s who brings African American music to the mainstream—embarking on a then-taboo interracial relationship along the way. “It was the perfect choice in terms of what we want to emphasize, which is creating compassion and starting a conversation on race,” says Key. We recently spoke with Key about the musical, the importance of audience diversity, and why the success of the Hollywood of the South is great for the Atlanta theater scene.

How does this musical fit in to what you call your “season of courage”?
Key: The main character is loosely based on Dewey Phillips, the first person to play Elvis Presley on the radio. In the musical, Dewey—a white man—has the courage to step into a black nightclub. And Felicia, a singer who he falls in love with, has the courage to go onto the center of the dial and play her music in a mainstream venue. Those are the kinds of acts that instill hope.

Theatrical Outfit's Tom Key

Photograph by Jason Vail

Theatrical Outfit’s Tom Key
The story is set in 1950s Memphis, but many of the themes reflect the headlines of today.
It feels relevant. Because at the time interracial marriage was illegal, and of course the violence and the bigotry was boiling in the South. Now we’re experiencing a different version of that. We’re still having some of those same tensions around race relations, and gay marriage coming to the South. There are a few moments in the play when it really sounds as though the writers are referencing things that are happening in 2015.

Theatrical Outfit has its own historical connection to integration.
After its run at the Aurora Theatre, this show will be presented at the Rialto, but our building, the Balzer Theater, was once the site of one of Atlanta’s first fine restaurants, Herren’s, which was the first restaurant in the city to voluntarily integrate. We’re proud that the first African Americans to eat at Herren’s in 1963, Dr. Lee and Delores Shelton, are now season subscribers to Theatrical Outfit.

A few years ago, the company moved from Midtown to Downtown. Why was that important to you?
Just that change in location made an incredible difference in the diversity of our audience. I really care about speaking to everyone living in this city. If we’re going to evolve from a mentality of “it’s either you or me” to “we’re all in this together,” we have to share our stories and understand each other’s stories. Our job is to make those stories compelling and real.

To be choosing plays that will attract young and old, and black and white, and people of different economic, educational, faith, political backgrounds, that’s a great joy to see. To see the strength of a story draw all kinds of people.

What changes have you seen in the city’s theater scene since Georgia has become a popular destination for movie productions?
Not only is the film/TV industry transforming our economic development and our state, it’s helping us continue to grow a really healthy theater community. It makes it so much easier for us to retain talent, because now there are so many other opportunities here for actors, directors, designers, crewmembers. People don’t feel like they have to go to New York or L.A. It’s kind of like buying local, and realizing how fantastic the artists are that we have right here.

Watch a time-lapse video of Theatrical Outfit’s set installation for Memphis below.

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