By Ian Rigg
Red. The beautiful facility of Black Ensemble Theater is red. The seats are red. The sound baffles on the wall are red. The opening lighting scheme is red. Marvin Gaye’s iconic knit cap is red.
Marvin Gaye lived a red life. The man who inspired so much passion was a man of phenomenal passion himself. His life was also colored red by violence, abuse and addiction.
Black Ensemble Theater’s The Marvin Gaye Story (Don’t Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend) paints a portrait of a man of musical genius and mountains of problems, who was a victim of physical and emotional abuse, and inflicted abuse himself before his own father claimed his life with a gun.
Clothed all in white, Gaye speaks to the audience in a conversational tone from heaven above, telling them that love is stronger than any demons. The abstract set of sliding panels and modernist paint job designed by scenic artist CoCo Ree Lemery is a physical manifestation of the play’s nontraditional approach to the biopic. Playwright Jackie Taylor has written a play about a man, but it’s really a play about faith and forgiveness. It skips through time smartly, and utilizes Gaye’s discography incredibly well.
A harmonic convergence of script and stagecraft comes together in the beginning of the second act, where an effective time jump finds Gaye lost in a hotel room and lost in the 70s, tormented by turmoil in his own life of loss and substance abuse, and puzzled by the pain of prejudice and violence in a tumultuous, changing world. Inspired, he performs “What’s Going On,” one of Gaye’s most socially conscious songs, and if not the show’s standout number, then certainly its most artistic. Rueben Echoles’ striking choreography and natural hair wigs, Ruthanne Swanson’s period perfect costume design, Denise Karczewski’s lighting design, all come together in an evocative sequence about shifting times.
The script can sometimes succumb to stilted, mawkish dialogue adulating Gaye as an icon, and some bits, like a segment where Frankie Gay (ably, sensitively played by Kevin Patterson) talks about Vietnam, seem pretentious and fail to hit the mark of profundity, but by and large this is a show of genuine emotion, evocatively enacted by its cast. This is the Marvin Gaye Story, so while it seems every other character is a supporting role, many manage to stand out, and as the play tells it, the man needed supporting roles just in order to function.
Stalwart, spectacular supporting players are Trequon Tate, Kyle Smith and Rueben Echoles as Berry Gordy. Each of these men possess a phenomenal speaking voice, and each does a fine job playing the balance of characters increasingly exasperated with Gaye’s actions but also in awe of his talent.
Yahdina U-Deen is marvelous as mother Alberta Gay. Her first introduction is played for laughs as a doting mother (“You’re so thin! Mr. Fuqua, please make sure Marvin gets a little more to eat”) but soon she plays scenes that reveal her abuse behind closed doors at the hands of her husband. Beleaguered, belittled, the resignation on her face is painful and remarkable to behold. The utter anguish and agony in her voice as she sings “Oh My God,” immediately following the climactic murder scene, will leave audiences stunned.
The play’s antagonist, the abusive Marvin Gay Sr., is played by Henri Watkins. His first introduction is walking onstage with belt in hand, yelling offstage at his daughters. The atrocities he commits against his family are mortifying, but his anger would appear one-note were it not for the numbness and fear behind his eyes.
Melanie McCullough excels in the dual role of Tammi Terrell and Jan Gaye, two women inextricably important to Marvin Gaye. More than her vibrant voice is her astute acting, shifting from Tammi, whose wit and spirit could go toe to toe with her collaborator, to Jan, who goes from starry-eyed teenager to victim in the span of a single time jump. The scene where she is seduced by Gaye singing “Let’s Get It On” receives laughs, so it is unclear whether it was meant to be played for such, but by bookending the introduction of Gaye’s second marriage and its bleak later years around a scene of Gaye’s parents, it makes a chilling statement about the cyclical nature of abuse.
The musicians behind the cast are an outstanding character in their own right. The pit is simply phenomenal, particularly the thrilling sax solos from Dudley Owens. They also provide apt background scoring to dramatic scenes. Gaye’s discography was powered not just by marvelous musicianship, but a palpable groove, and this group has really got it.
Yet the show is called The Marvin Gaye Story, and its success hinges on who plays the titular role. Luckily (yet likely not luck at all), this Marvin Gaye is a star. Rashawn Thompson’s velveteen voice evokes Gaye’s, an incredible simulation, but he smartly strays from doing a Gaye impression, embodying the man rather than impersonate him. He’s able to create a nuanced transformation of Gaye over the years, from sheepish backup singer, to increasingly cocky Motown philanderer, to cocaine-addled, crazed icon. Of particular effect is his psychological breakdown at the climax of “Sexual Healing.” It’s a powerhouse performance. With tics like cocaine sniffing, mimicry of Marvin Gaye’s moves and expert vocal control, Johnson knows what’s going on.
Director Daryl D. Brooks has devised an electrifying and emotional piece of theater. The Marvin Gaye Story tells the tale of another time, but it is incredibly timely. It comes at a time when a conversation in Chicago theatre circles is about chronic abuse. It comes at a time when gun violence is at the forefront of the collective conscience. It comes at a time when what people need most is healing. As Gaye says at the end of the show, “The circle will be broken, and the world will learn to love again.”
Black Ensemble Theater presents “The Marvin Gaye Story (Don’t Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend)” through July 10 at 4450 N Clark St., Chicago. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. More information and tickets ($55-$65) are available by phone at (773) 769-4451 or online here.