Black history in Memphis: let’s talk about it. When I recently received an invite down to Bluff City, what mainly came to mind before boarding the plane to Tennessee was Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate, and BBQ. Needless to say, after 48 hours in town—taking in the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Black-owned Hattiloo Theatre, and the National Civil Rights Museum (site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination)—my take on the town evolved exponentially. Memphis nightlife at a local founders’ day celebration for Alpha Phi Alpha got thrown into the mix too, planting my craving to go back asap.
1. Sun Studio | 2:30 p.m.
First order of business straight off the flight was copping a Sun Studio T-shirt, with its renowned golden logo of a cock crowing at sunrise. Hostess with the mostest Allison Fouché scooped me from Memphis International Airport with a direct bead on 706 Union Avenue. Memphis music needs its own Cadillac Records-style biopic. Though the famed Sun Studio is synonymous with culture vulture Elvis Presley, the first widely recognized rock ’n’ roll song—Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88”—was recorded there in 1951, as were the influential catalogs of legends like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. Equally celebrated at the studio/museum are blues and R&B luminaries Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker, Little Milton, James Cotton and Rosco Gordon. Anyone with an eye on African-American contributions to music should make a pilgrimage and take the tour.
2. Hattiloo Theatre | 8:00 p.m.
Over delectable black Thai rice and roasted sea bass at Tsunami restaurant, 44-year-old playwright Ekundayo Bandele—founder and executive director of the Hattiloo Theatre—animatedly discussed the state of Black theater, that night’s upcoming production of If Scrooge Was a Brother (which he’d written), his daughters (Hatshepsut and Oluremi, his theater’s namesakes), and his migration from Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Since 2005, Hattiloo has staged plays by Ntozake Shange (For Colored Girls…), August Wilson, (Fences, Radio Golf, etc.), Langston Hughes (Black Nativity), Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun), James Baldwin (The Amen Corner) and Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog), as well as the work of lesser-known modern playwrights. Bandele himself has directed a handful of Hattiloo productions, including an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers and his own Judas Hands. The theater’s multicultural audience struck an unprecedented wellspring of success on the Memphis cultural scene, prompting hefty financial support and a 2014 move to a newly constructed $3.3 million building in chic Overton Square.
Finding freshness in yet another adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t easy, but If Scrooge Was a Brother fired on all cylinders. On a sparse, often imaginary set, surly businessman Eb Scroo is visited by the spirits of Christmases past, present and future to learn predictable lessons of charity and compassion. Next up for Hattiloo Theatre: Free Man of Color (March 3 to April 3), followed by Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet (April 14 to May 8) and, at the cusp of summertime, The Wiz (June 2 to June 26).
3. Stax Museum of American Soul Music | 11:00 a.m.
Can’t have a Sun Studio T-shirt without a Stax T-shirt. Local 24 News reporter Rudy Williams graciously hosted a pre-party for our Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity founders’ day blowout at the Tower Center with some friends. Lovely Local 24 News reporter Katina Rankin and publicist Joy Doss were along for the ride, a night full of grown-folk fun that made checkout at the River Inn a challenge in the morning. But, can’t have a Sun Studio T-shirt without a Stax T-shirt. So, munching on gourmet chocolates for breakfast (courtesy of local chocolatier Phillip Ashley), my Memphis guide and I headed out to Stax.
A movie marquee façade still marks 926 East McLemore Avenue as the former home of Stax Records, now the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Full of interactive exhibits, films, vinyl and unforgettable memorabilia from the label that brought the world Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Wattstax and more, the highlight has to be Hayes’s Cadillac Eldorado—complete with mini-bar, TV, white fur floorboard carpeting and 24-carat gold exterior. The label’s legendary fingersnap logo is reproduced all over T-shirts, beer tumblers, postcards, shot glasses, posters and more in the gift shop. If you’re ever in Memphis, get you some.
4. National Civil Rights Museum | 12:30 p.m.
And how to describe the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the final resting place of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Room 306, visible through glass and untouched down to the ashtray since April 4, 1968, feels haunted. The Civil Rights Movement has the museum it deserves. (Renovations totaling $27.5 million took place in 2014.) Less than three hours exploring exhibits from slavery to Black Lives Matter is criminal; one could spend a whole weekend taking it all in. I daresay it’s worth a trip to Memphis all on its own to pay a visit. My own time was rushed by that point, with a 2:00 flight back to New York City looming. I almost rescheduled my flight before director of marketing Faith Morris promised me another visit someway, somehow in 2016. It’s on my calendar; it should be on yours.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @furthermucker.