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Final Stages

Memphis theater community salutes Keith Kennedy.



"Legend" is an overused word that should only be applied to those whose stories are told so often it becomes difficult to separate the mundane facts from the colorful fiction.

Keith Kennedy's fame may not reach far beyond the boundaries of Memphis' performing arts community, but there's no better word to describe the iconoclastic contrarian of Memphis theater who died of congestive heart failure on December 17th. He was 78.

Kennedy, whose life is being celebrated at a memorial service January 31st at 3 p.m. in the University of Memphis' Theatre and Communication Building, was the first chairman of the U of M's theater department. There is no backstage, rehearsal hall, or green room in all of the Mid-South where his name isn't invoked in reverential tones, adorned with some occasional cussing.

Kennedy's far-reaching influence would be no less pervasive had he only directed shows like Max Frisch's Biederman & The Firebugs and the bawdy Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Both of those shows are benchmarks for extraordinary performance-based art in Memphis. But Kennedy is best known for courting controversy.

Under his guidance, the university's theater department developed a live stage version of the Who's Tommy decades before Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff adapted it for the Broadway stage. Even more memorably, in 1970, the U of M mounted the first production of Hair outside of New York City.

"He was a man of distinct persuasion," says Josie Helming, who first met Kennedy in 1957. He eventually convinced her to come to Memphis to do her graduate studies. "He had a 'you'll never know if you never try' attitude. ... His instincts were incredible," Helming says.

"Keith just showed up in the offices of [Hair creators Gerome] Ragni and [Galt] MacDermot," Helming recalls. Once there, he made a case that there were kids in Memphis who were hungry to begin a dialogue about the war in Vietnam.

When word got out that "America's tribal rock love musical" was coming to Memphis, the show was denounced from pulpits and roundly condemned by the pious and the patriotic.

"He just let the furor grow," Helming says.

Kennedy was a proponent of original material and helped develop new shows like The King Is a Fink, an original musical based on the Wizard of Id comic strip, and Inner Wonder, a musical revue celebrating the music of Stevie Wonder.

"Keith really tried to bring more African Americans into the theater," Helming says.

In 1992, Kennedy was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Achievement Award. In 1996, ArtsMemphis and Memphis magazine presented him with the Eugart Yerian Award for lifetime achievement in the theater.

The memorial celebration on January 31st will feature Kennedy's poetry and prose, as well as music presented by family and friends. The music will include selections from Strider, The King Is a Fink, and Hair.

"We'll end the memorial with 'Let the Sunshine In,'" Helming says.

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