[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond career issues.]
Marvin Gaye, a Life of Genius and Pain
I’ve attended several plays at the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago. Each was written by Artistic Director Jackie Taylor, and, in each case, the play was outstanding. Last night I attended the final preview of Taylor’s new production: Marvin Gaye: Don’t Talk about My Father. God Is My Friend. It is Taylor’s crowning achievement, exploring Gaye’s life and career in a manner we would expect in plays written by Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill.
The play began and ended with the audience being addressed by a ghost of Marvin Gaye, who was killed by his father in 1984. This frame is important because it lets Taylor take the story of a man’s life and use it to make us look deeper into a story we thought we knew. Gaye’s father was a monster, but, to a great degree, so was his son. In the opening scene, Marvin says he and his father were haunted by demons. For the artist, these demons drove him to create great music and cause great pain to those he loved. For Marvin Gaye, Sr., a failed preacher, his demons locked him a world of hate that he took out through physical and verbal abuse of his wife and children.
Marvin’s rise to success runs parallel to the impact his father has had on him: addiction, an inability to have a normal relation with a woman, and, worst of all, profound self-doubt and self-loathing. Taylor deftly presents Gaye’s stage fright and addictive behaviors. He seemed happy only in those brief years he performed with Tammi Terrell, who died from a brain tumor in 1970. After that, hit records mask a steady personal decline that ends with Gaye daring his father to shoot him, a challenge Marvin Sr. answered by pulling the trigger.
However, that’s not how the death scene takes place in Taylor’s production. Instead, Gaye’s mother stands at the front of the stage, facing the audience and begging both her husband and son to stop. Gaye and his father stand on either side of the stage with their backs to each other. Taylor doesn’t want simple drama where Marvin the son is victim of the demonic father Marvin. Instead, both men are victims, like Oedipus, of a fate that can crush even the greatest of men. The death scene ends with the stage going black and two gun shots echoing. Then the actors playing both Marvins leave the stage and a spotlight shines on a mother and wife who has seen too much. Her song of grief brings home an intimate pain that outweighs the cliched headlines of our celebrity-focused world. This scene is followed by Marvin reappearing, dressed in white to make sense of what we have seen. He wraps the story up in one word: “forgiveness,” which is followed by Gaye and fellow cast members joining in a deeply soulful rendition of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
Every performer from Rashawn Thompson, the actor playing Marvin Gaye, to those playing minor roles gave authentic portrayal of their characters. The music and singing was equally fantastic. The house band is integral to all productions at the Black Ensemble Theater. In this case, however, they played a role almost as important as the lead actors. At times, they were completely faithful to Gaye’s original songs. At other times, they added twists and extensions that fit the play’s changing moods and themes. The staging was simple, but fitting – nothing out of place or distracting.
The range of songs from Gaye’s pre-Motown career to several songs from What’s Going On? to the late hits like “Distant Lover” and “Sexual Healing” were a joy in themselves. Anyone who doubts how great Marvin Gaye was as an artist simply needs to listen to these songs. As in her other plays based on musicians, Taylor’s cast was true to the original version without simply singing covers.
During a Q&A at the end of the play, an enthusiastic audience member asked Taylor if she could write some kind of second Marvin Gaye story. She simply said, “No” and then explained why. To prepare to write this play, Taylor read 13 books on her subject. She interviewed his family, and watched tapes of performances. Most of all, she felt the pain and said she could not cry those tears again. Anyone who attends this production will appreciate Taylor’s sacrifice and how it let her tell the story of a wildly talented, wildly troubled man, Marvin Gaye.