The Marvin Gaye Story

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Rashawn Thompson as Marvin Gaye. Photos by Danny Nicholas.

Written by Jackie Taylor

Directed by Daryl D. Brooks

Musical Direction by Robert Reddrick

Produced by Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago

Black Ensemble True to Form While Examining Hate

As Black Ensemble reprises its greatest hits this year, it also gives each of its company members a chance to revisit their major roles. This summer, company regular Rashawn Thompson is reprising his role as Marvin Gaye in one of the earliest biographical revues Black Ensemble did in their Ravenswood theatre. The show, with a book by Artistic Director Jackie Taylor, is representative of her work, employing spirituality, moralizing, and joyous musical tributes to balance out an extremely dark biography. The Marvin Gaye Story is subtitled Don’t Talk About My Father Because God is My Friend due to its protagonist having been shot to death by his own father, following a lifetime of adversity.

As Marvin Gaye, Thompson announces the manner of his death to us in the first few minutes of the show, but tells us that the lesson of his life is that only love can break a cycle of abuse. He should know. We first see Marvin as a member of The Moonglows in the early 60s. Fellow band member Harvey Fuqua (Trequon Tate) can see that the group has gone as far as it’s going to, but invites Marvin to come with him to Detroit, telling him that his talent is unique. Marvin is already showing signs of instability and anger, and it’s all related to his father, but Harvey hopes the change in environment and group dynamics will get his friend to behave more professionally. It sort of works; though Marvin’s first solo album doesn’t do very well, he wins the friendship of Motown executive Barry Gordy (Reuben Echoles) and marries his sister, Anna Gordy (Kylah Frye), an executive in her own right. His career really takes off when he performs duets with Tammi Terrell (Melanie McCullough), although they come at the price of his marriage after their affair is exposed.

Marvin Gaye (Rashawn Thompson), Smokie Robinson (Kyle Smith), Gwen Gordy (Katrina Ri’Chard) and Anna Gordy (Kylah Frye)

Despite Marvin’s talent, his father is a perpetual source of anxiety. Gay Sr. (Henri Watkins) is an agoraphobic, homophobic, self-loathing former minister who beats his wife and other children constantly and resents any mention of the son who has made something of himself. At his worst, he even accuses Marvin’s mother, Alberta (Yahdina U-Deen), of harboring incestuous lust for her son, obviously projecting his own feelings. Due to her belief in the holy insolubility of marriage, Alberta refuses to leave her husband, and since the children won’t cut her out of their lives, they can’t sever ties with their father, either. As Marvin’s fame grows, he retreats more and more frequently into drug use, and sabotages all of his personal relationships, but insists on giving gifts to his family. His friends can’t understand it.

Marvin Gaye (Rashawn Thompson) and Tammi Terrell (Melanie McCullough)

The revue includes Gaye’s greatest hits, and all the songs except for an original composition by Taylor are presented as musical performances in-universe. There are seven songs in each act, which is an appropriate number for a two-hour long musical. Director Daryl D. Brooks keeps the spoken sections of the story moving along rapidly, so that the balance between them and the music never feels out of whack. In fact, they complement each other, with the sinister lyrics of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” being more obvious than ever for where the song comes in the story. “Pride and Joy” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” by contrast, come from what is presented as the happiest period in Gaye’s life, and contain the liveliest spirit.

Thompson is very well settled into his role now, and charismatic enough to make Marvin Gaye likable even at his worst-behaved. Of course, part of that is due to the expository nature of a lot of the dialogue; Jackie Taylor figured out long ago what kind of story-telling her audience responds favorably to. But Thompson has an easy chemistry with the other performers, particularly McCullough, who also plays Gaye’s second wife, Jan. At one point, a character tells Gaye that “Let’s Get It On” is meant to be about getting on with life, but Gaye makes the song sexual. He does that all the time, and as Thompson plays him, it works very well. The audience at opening got swept up in Gaye’s seduction, and were even more excited during “Sexual Healing,” only for their fun to be brutally undercut. The Marvin Gaye Story is a very sad one, and Taylor’s mystical framing device only goes so far in sweetening it. But it contains Black Ensemble’s usual high quality of singing, costumes (Ruthanne Swanson), and orchestrations, and the particular form of murderous hatred it examines is obviously one that audiences will be able to recognize easily at the present moment.

Recommended

Jacob Davis

3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed June 12, 2016

For more information, see The Marvin Gaye Story’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N Clark St, Chicago. Tickets are $55-65, with discounts for students, seniors, and groups; to order, visit blackensemble.org or call 773-769-4451. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm through July 10. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.