The nature of Elvis Presley will be explored in the world premiere of a play that presents a down-to-earth portrayal of Elvis' past and challenges audiences to reconsider their opinions about his origins.
"Tupelo: to Elvis and the town he left behind," will open at 8 p.m. today at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro. It is the inaugural event of UNC's 15th annual Southern Writers in Performance Series. It will play again tomorrow and also 15-18 November.
The play deals with two fictional boys, one black and one white, who, as friends, went to see a free concert Elvis gave for his hometown of Tupelo in 1956. Paul Ferguson, professor of performance studies at UNC and the play's director, described the town of Tupelo, Miss., as "a highly segregated place with a lot of racial tension and socioeconomic disparity," which enjoyed a rare sense of unity at the concert.
"Because (Elvis') music was so deeply influenced by African-American blues artists and jazz singers, he appealed to that community," Ferguson said."
The concert was a time when an African-American kid and a white kid could go to the same concert, as friends, without any kind of societal barriers between them."
Ferguson said after seeing the concert, the boys were deeply moved and found something they wanted to embrace: an undivided Tupelo. The play's theme of illuminating the past runs parallel to a motive of Ferguson's to dispel a rumor about The King.
"There was a persistent kind of myth that Elvis might have been a racist; in fact he was the opposite," Ferguson said. "The play offered me a chance to continue the debunking of that myth."
The belief that Elvis was racist is based on claims that he made a bigoted remark during a radio show moderated by Edward R. Murrow.
"In reality, (Elvis) was never on the radio show and never said that. Even Edward R. Murrow said that it was completely untrue," Ferguson said. "If anything, Elvis is the only artist who is giving African-Americans the due credit for his works."
LaMark Wright, who plays one of the lead roles in the play, said he was at first unsure about assuming the role of a black man in the context of Elvis' supposed racism.
"I had always heard the story about 'Yeah Elvis is racist and all this and all that,' and that's the notion I had gathered," Wright said. "I had preconceived notions of who and what Elvis was. (Tupelo) spoke volumes to me about what I had to personally let go of or re-evaluate."
Andrea Powell, an actress in the play, said performing in "Tupelo" gave her a new picture of the famed singer.
"One thing that I really love about this play is that it approaches the story of Elvis from a completely different perspective," she said.
"(People) think Graceland, 'Viva Las Vegas' sequined guy, but this play focuses on what really made him different in terms of changing music forever."