For actress Felicia Boswell, playing the lead of gospel singer Felicia Farrell in the musical “Memphis” in Washington is a long time coming. “I’ve always wanted to perform at the Kennedy Center — I thought that I was going to be in a beautiful gown, with a spotlight, in the key of ‘B,’ though,” she says of living out her dream.
Set in the 1950s, “Memphis” tells the story of a white radio DJ named Huey Calhoun who is anxious to integrate the airwaves. Calhoun crosses paths with a black gospel singer who is ready to step into the spotlight as a performer — and the two set out to change their lives and the world around them.
Boswell sat down with TheRootDC and talked about staying energized on the road, the spirit that she shares with her character of the same name, and continuing the legacy of fighting for equality that she inherited from a special relative.
How did you anchor your foundation in performing?
I don’t really know when I started. There’s audio of me singing when I was 3 years old, and my family had a gospel group, and we used to sing on a Christian radio station every Sunday morning. That started when I was about 5 or 6.
When did you realize that there was no turning back?
I don’t know a time that I even considered doing anything else. I don’t know a time where I didn’t think about performing or singing. I’ve always danced, I’ve always been a ham. I’ve always acted. I always knew that I wanted to be a professional singer.
You share a name with the main character — what characteristics do you think he two of you share?
As I say all the time, “Felicia Farrell is just an extension of Felicia Boswell.” The only thing is that I wasn’t alive in the ’50s, and I haven’t been beaten or attacked for wanting to love a man outside of my race. I think that I would have the same fire. I would still be passionate about what I believed in. I would still want to love that white man if I wanted to love that white man. I’d still be a diehard Christian — there are so many parallels to my life and Felicia Farrell’s life that I don’t really have to work very hard to portray her every night. I don’t know what it was like in that day and time to be her. That’s the only difference that I can see.
But we have so many things in common that there is no line — it’s very gray for me.
You’ve been all over the world with this show — how do you deal with the constant travel?
It’s taxing. I’m exhausted right now. It’s a very huge show to travel. I have to spend lots of time resting and recuperating so that I can do it all over again. But, I love it — I love taking Broadway to places where people who love theater don’t have an opportunity to get to New York and see this caliber of theater. I love taking the story across the country . . . and I’m proud of what we have. I love sharing it, but it can be very, very, very tiring. We’ve been on the road since October of last year, and we recently got extended to May 2013.
We have a few breaks. I just came from my first vacation ever two weeks ago. I’ve never taken a personal vacation — I’ve been off of the show, but I’ve never taken a vacation.
Your job is just as physically demanding as it is mental and emotional. How do you prepare yourself before you go onstage?
I pray, and I always exercise and I make sure that I am as hydrated as possible, but prayer is a huge part of my process, of my warming up. It requires a lot . . . but I love it. I don’t think about it as work. I literally am consumed by Felicia Farrell, but I love, love, love my job. I am called to do it. I know that I’m not supposed to be anywhere else right now.
The show is full of a lot of singing and dancing and fun, but what message do you want it to convey to theatergoers?
I think that we all have an innate desire to love and to be loved and to be accepted for who we are, for what we are. I think that it’s a beautiful love story, so people identify with that. I think that we have definitely grown a lot as a human race, but we are still so behind when it comes to other things. There’s still people fighting for freedoms and equality around the world, just like we were fighting for the right to vote. To be able to walk through the front door of a restaurant and sit in a restaurant, and sit anywhere we wanted to sit on a bus, even.
Thanks to my cousin Rosa Parks, who was known for that very act . . . we’ve definitely come far, but we have so much further to go. Sometimes people need to be reminded of where we came from, and that’s what I think our show does. It reminds people where we’re from, where we need to go, but it’s also a history lesson for people who haven’t had to endure any of these things, and people who are just unaware to the struggles that the human race had to endure and overcome for us to have the freedoms that we have today.
“Memphis” will be performed June 12-July 1. Visit kennedy-center.org for tickets.
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