Just like the character she plays in the musical “Memphis,” Felicia Boswell’s star is rising. After appearing in the Broadway production of the Tony-winning Broadway musical as understudy for Montego Glover, the talented actress landed the lead role in the national tour and has been lighting up the stage ever since. Southern California audiences will have the opportunity to enjoy the music and the message of “Memphis” when it plays at the San Diego’s Civic Theatre July 24 – 29.
“Memphis” is set in the smoky Beale Street nightclubs of the 50’s during a musical and cultural revolution. Huey Calhoun, a young white DJ, meets and falls for a beautiful African American singer Felicia Farrell, who he promises will cross racial lines in getting her music played on white radio. Their collaboration defies southern taboos but also electrifies the musical community. It is both a love story and history lesson about race and culture that still rings true today.
Boswell is an accomplished actress who currently resides in New York but has strong ties to the south. She is passionate about her craft and about telling stories with lasting impact. Not only does she share the same name with the character she portrays, but they share many other traits. The award-winning performer took time between shows at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre to talk about the connections she feels with the character she plays, the nurturing strength and spirit provided by her family, including her cousin Rosa Parks, and her deep commitment to continuing to fight the good fight for equality.
How would you describe Felicia?
Felicia Farrell is a woman in the 1950’s in Memphis who strives to be a professional singer. She falls in love with a Caucasian DJ named Huey Calhoun and the story is based on their relationship in that day and time and the discomfort of being in an interracial relationship.
How big a part of the story is the church?
Church is a huge part of the story. Felicia is a diehard Christian as am I. She relies on her faith to get her through as do I. That’s true for the African American community. Even from slavery times, all we had was our faith. It is definitely prominent in this play as it is in my own life. I attended People’s Baptist Church in Montgomery and my family had a gospel group that performed on a Christian radio station every Sunday morning. I started when I was 5 or 6 years old. In the Boswell household we were all passionate about the gift that we were blessed with. I don’t know my life not performing or singing.
In what other ways do you connect with Felicia and with the times that the play is set?
First of all, I’m southern. I’m from Montgomery, Alabama, the heart of the civil rights movement. Dexter Ave. Baptist Church is right downtown. Rosa Parks is my cousin. Being born and raised in Montgomery, it is inevitable to know the history. Even though I was not alive in the 50’s, I understand the music and the struggles of that time and it helps me tell the story every night.
Tell me a little about your relationship with your cousin Rosa Parks.
I was around Rosa many times as I was growing up. Whenever she came to town to speak, she always stayed at my grandmother’s house. As a child I knew that she was important, but I didn’t realize how important until I was older. What I remember is that she was very sweet, soft-spoken and very kind. And she had the softest hands. When she touched me, it was like an angel’s touch. I grew up singing gospel with my family, and she loved it when we would sing for her.
What sets this show apart from other plays and musicals that deal with similar subjects?
Other shows like “Dreamgirls,” “Hairspray” and “Caroline, or Change” have told this story in a different way. One thing that I love about our story is we cross that ugly line, we go there. It is real and raw. But there is also a beautiful love story underlying all the hate. We all have an innate desire to love and be loved. This is one thing people recognize and love so much about the musical.
What do you hope people will take from this play?
We have come a long way but we still have so much further to go. I am grateful for my cousin Rosa and for all the people who put their lives on the line for our freedoms and it is our duty to share that with generations who have not experienced the things that my grandmother and grandmother’s grandmother did. We have to stand up for what’s right and “Memphis” is definitely a reminder of that.
What has been the highlight of this tour so far?
Performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington was huge. I always dreamed of singing there in a beautiful gown in the spotlight for a president. But I never knew that I would be starring in a show there. Opening and starring in “Memphis” was one of the most beautiful moments in my life.
Is there a role that you have not played that you hope to play one day?
I would love to play Rachel Marron in “The Bodyguard. “ It has been made into a musical starring Heather Headley, who originated the role of Nala in “Lion King” in London’s West End. I feel very passionate about the project and would love to originate the role of Rachel Marin if/when it comes to Broadway. I had an opportunity to spend some really special time with Whitney Houston and I would love to be able to share that with the world.
Who are the mentors in your life?
My mother and my father have been most instrumental in my faith, courage and stamina. They conditioned my sisters and me for the demands of this world and I am always reminding myself of the truth that they taught us.
“Memphis, “ starring Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart plays at the San Diego Civic Theatre July 24 – 29. Visit TicketMaster.com or call 888-937-8995.