“Memphis,” a four-time Tony Award-winning show, is not just another jukebox musical. Embarking on its first national tour from the title city, “Memphis,” which won the 2010 Tony award for Best Musical, centers on the controversial themes of segregation and cultural acceptance during the 1950s.
Tami Dahbura, understudying the role of Mama Gladys, received her bachelor of arts in theater and Latin American literature from the Mount Holyoke College. Dahbura spoke with The State Press about her acting career and what to expect from the national tour.
The State Press: How did you get involved in theater? What first gave you the acting bug?
Tami Dahbura: (Acting) is something I’ve been doing pretty much my whole life. I was always very theatrical as a child. My mom loved musical theater, and she had all the albums of all the Broadway shows. I don’t know, it’s something in your blood. I just loved it ever since I was young and all throughout high school and college; it’s been a lifelong love for me. I studied it in college and studied privately in New York. It’s really a lifelong passion.
SP: You were in a one-woman show (“Lost in the Stars,” which traveled from San Francisco to the International Arts Festival in El Salvador). What were some unexpected challenges you faced?
TD: Sometimes just sitting down and finding some and up-tempo songs are hard. Everyone likes to do ballads, but those always sound better with a piano. It was a challenge to find those upbeat and funny songs. I knew some of the songs right away, and some things just fell into place. Other songs were challenging, because I needed to figure out what I wanted to say. You always want to sing about your personal life experiences.
SP: What has been your favorite part of a national tour?
TD: I love traveling to the different cities and exploring the cities. Every week, we get an opening night in a different city. We perform in historic cities like the Kennedy Center (in Washington, D.C.) and in Boston.
SP: Why do you think audiences are drawn to the show?
TD: I think initially people tell us all the time, “I knew nothing about the show,” but they see that it won a Tony (Award), so they decide to see it. A lot of people think it’s a jukebox musical with rhythm and blues or songs that have been on the radio, but it’s all original music. When they see the show, they are surprised by the love story and the story of the loser that becomes successful. Many of the people in the audience weren’t born when racism existed, so they see that it really existed. They love it because of that surprise. It strikes a chord with a lot of people. We get standing ovations every single night and people just raving and raving about the show.
SP: What is your personal favorite part of the show?
TD: There’s a song called “Radio” when the black and white kids are dancing and listening to music and the radio kind of unites them. They start playing together. That’s really neat, because it shows that music can really break the gap between cultures. It’s a really great moment in the show.
SP: How often do you get to perform as Gladys?
TD: Not very often. I did get to go on for a week, because Julie (Johnson) went on vacation. Other than that, she’s very healthy and committed to her work, which is great. I have some fun smaller roles like an uptight, racist clerk who wants to keep her job. I play the traditional white people mostly who were afraid of change and anything different in their lives.
SP: What’s the biggest challenge of playing so many different roles?
TD: It’s never a challenge for me because it’s fun. When you’re done on stage playing one part it’s like, ‘OK let that go for tonight now on to the next one.’ In a couple instances, I revisit a character and flip back and forth. It’s all about putting on a costume and looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Now you’re such and such’ and committing to that story.
SP: What are your plans for after the tour?
TD: I’m going home (to San Francisco) after the tour. I have three dogs, and I raise guide dogs for the blind. I’d love to raise another puppy, but that’s another endeavor. Everyone’s always looking at me saying I should be Madame Morrible (from the musical “Wicked”). There seems to be more and more chances for women of a certain age to play fun roles.
“Memphis” will be playing at the ASU Gammage from March 5-10. Buy tickets online at asugammage.com.
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