Amen, Elvis: Grissom explores King fixation

Doug Grissom had never been a fan, but after reading Peter Guralnick's book, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, the iconic power of the King began to work its magic.

"I became fascinated by what Elvis meant to people," says the UVA drama professor whose new play, Elvis People, will be staged in January at Roanoke's Millmont Theater.

Grissom, 52, is perhaps best known in Charlottesville for co-founding Offstage Theater, whose popular Barhopper Series stages short plays in bars around town. Also, his educational theater piece about acquaintance rape, But I Said No (co-written with Margaret Baldwin), grabbed national attention after its 1990 debut and is still staged on college campuses.

He's also the recipient of both the Virginia Playwriting Award and the Outstanding New Play Award at the Washington Theatre Festival.

His latest claim to fame is that he's an Elvis expert– of sorts.

In the new production, however, "There's no Elvis, and there's no music." Instead, the play consists of series of vignettes and small stories about people who are influenced by the actual man and the celebrity.

There's a story about a Vietnam vet who finds healing with Elvis songs, stories about obsessed fans, a monologue from Elvis' army sergeant in Germany, and an array of composite characters based on manager Colonel Tom Parker and other members of the "Memphis Mafia." Grissom even swings for the fences by including a sketch about a woman who uses Elvis to perform a racist act. And, off course, there's an Elvis impersonator.

"You do see the arm of Elvis at one point," admits Grissom. "He's in bed with a woman."

"The play is less about Elvis than about our relationship with fame," says Chris Patrick, the former OffStage artistic director who assisted with readings of Elvis People at Gravity Lounge. "It's more about myth-making."

Ironically, Grissom's own Elvis story could easily be one of the vignettes.

"My house has been consumed by Elvis while I've been working on this," says Grissom. "Since I've been doing this it's amazing how often I see Elvis in the culture."

Bree Luck, OffStage's current producer/director, says that one of the wonderful things about the play is its accessibility. "You don't have to be an Elvis fan to like this play," she says. "It's really about the way this mega-star has affected the most unlikely folks."

Why do folks become Elvis people?

"There's a religious aspect to Elvis," says Grissom. "I was tempted to subtitle the play, Elvis People: The Varieties of Religious Experience," he laughs.

Long live the King!

Doug Grissom