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Theater Preview: the rousing “Memphis” at the Altria Theater explores race relations in the entertainment world.

click to enlarge Zuri Washington as Felicia and Daniel S. Hines as Huey in the musical “Memphis,” which won the 2010 Tony Award for best musical.

Denise Trupe

Zuri Washington as Felicia and Daniel S. Hines as Huey in the musical “Memphis,” which won the 2010 Tony Award for best musical.

Virginia is no stranger to controversy over interracial couples. It was a Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage nationally. Nearly 50 years later, “Memphis,” is finally coming to Richmond.

The story of an interracial couple in the 1950s won the 2010 Tony Award for best musical. It follows a white DJ who becomes enraptured by black music. Like “Hairspray,” the musical combines racial tension with 1950s rock ’n’ roll to drive home the message that music has the power to unite.

“Memphis” begins with a character named Huey stumbling upon Delray’s, an underground rock ’n’ roll bar. “He’s a white boy coming in the middle of this black club, which was a huge no-no for both parties,” says Zuri Washington, who plays Felicia in the production coming to town.

In addition to the music, Huey falls in love with Felicia, a singer and sister to the club’s owner. Huey sees a star in Felicia, and uses his job as a DJ to boost her career. Like Romeo and Juliet, their love is threatened by outside forces.

“They fall in love, and he helps skyrocket her career,” Washington says. “They have to deal with the ups and downs, sometimes to the detriment of their relationship.”

Loving v. Virginia isn’t the only connection to the state. Felicia’s brother Delray is played by Keith Patrick McCoy.

A native of Portsmouth, McCoy studied theater at Norfolk State University. He’s appeared in shows for Virginia Repertory Theatre and its touring children’s theater division, Theatre IV. He says it will be good to be home.

“Anytime I get to perform at home it’s always special, because I have friends, I have family in Richmond,” says McCoy, who appeared in Virginia Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Music Man” and has performed at Kings Dominion. “I’m never in Virginia, so to be able to bring a show there is nice. It’s almost like bringing home a new girlfriend.”

Though not a villain, McCoy’s character complicates things for the show’s protagonist.

“My character, overly protective big brother, I don’t support the relationship because I recognize all the dangers that come along with a white man and a black woman in this time period,” McCoy says. “I don’t support the relationship at all.”

Adding to the difficulties between Delray and Huey is that they both have a similar goal for Felicia.

“I have dreams also of making her a big star,” McCoy says. “He wants the same thing, but because of him being white, he can open certain doors that I can’t. So there’s a conflict with our characters pretty much the entire show.”

McCoy says audiences have been thrilled by the show’s message of unity through song. “It’s definitely a roller coaster ride,” he says. “You get the full range of emotions in the show.”

“We’re all humans with the same wants and the same desires and the same dreams,” he says. S

“Memphis” plays April 24 and 25 at the Altria Theater, 6 N. Laurel St. For information, call 800-514-3849 or visit altriatheater.com.

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