The life and music of D.C.’s own native son, Marvin Gaye (Keith Washington), one of the most gifted musical talents of the twenty-first century, came alive for a few brief hours at The Warner Theatre before an audience of die-hard loyal fans. The play is produced by well-known playwright Angela Barrow-Dunlap; capably directed by Clifton Powell, with stellar music direction provided by Cardell Walton.
What does it take to birth an artistic visionary? Called the voice of his generation by many, possessing a tenor three octave voice, winner of two 1983 Grammy Awards for “Sexual Healing” (vocal and instrumental), a product of the Motown R&B hit machine, Marvin the man and his music evolved into an artistic form of self-expression that was intensely political as well as a creative force and agent for social change. Authoring and singing such songs as “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and “Save the Children” on his self-produced album What’s Going On, whose content and style forever altered the face of black music. The album, widely considered a masterpiece, highlighted Marvin’s deeply held spiritual beliefs and also explored issues of poverty, discrimination, environmental pollution, urban decay, police brutality, drug abuse, political corruption; and highlighted the conflict in Vietnam.
The long-awaited story-behind-the-story as told through the eyes of his youngest sister, Zeola Gaye (Tondy Gallant), unfolded along a continuum from Marvin’s birth on April 2, 1939 to his untimely death on April 2, 1984. I came prepared to lay aside everything I knew about Marvin, all of which was positive, as I have always loved his music and ignored the well-publicized personal detractions. Drawing from her book entitled My Brother Marvin: A Memoir, Zeola adds new detail in the play from her front seat perspective in Marvin’s life. The play revealed the effect of Marvin Sr.’s (Clifton Powell) extremely conservative near-paranoia Christian views on his wife and children—especially Marvin—who suffered near daily beatings (primarily for singing secular songs); Marvin Sr.’s excessive jealousy of their close mother-son relationship; and Marvin Sr.’s life-long hidden penchant for cross-dressing. To reconcile this behavior with being a Christian and ordained minister, Marvin Sr. alleges incest with his own mother who disciplined him by stripping him naked, turning a water hose on and beating him to the point of bleeding before forcing him to her bed. Throughout it all the Bible and church were his father’s constant companions. Marvin’s mother, Alberta (Lynn Whitfield), constantly rebuked and prayed against these generational curses. It is probable that Marvin Sr. feared his son had inherited some of his own propensities.
Two things were prophetic in their turbulent father-son relationship: his father’s oft-repeated threat that if Marvin ever put his hands on him that he would kill him and Marvin’s own recurring dream that he would one day be called the world’s greatest singer—both of which came true. Other demons Marvin faced throughout his life (cocaine addiction, sexual eroticism, depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, along with three troubled marriages, and tax and financial issues, however, never caused him to abandon his belief in God.
Narrator/announcer (Duane Davis) adds additional historical facts that contribute to overall story cohesion. Additional actors include Havier Hill-Roller (Marvin/child); Tony Grant (Marvin/young man); Lia Grant (Tammi Terrell); John Terrell (Berry Gordy); and Tondy Gallant (Anna Gordy/Zeola Gaye).
If awards were being given out for choreography, staging and music direction, the entire production would take first place. It is the best I’ve ever seen, particularly for Paul Monette’s Set Design – who “nailed” it for that seventies and eighties look with red, while and black against a curtain backdrop of piano keys. Patty Turner, Nortrice Banner, and Kelly Linton wardrobe loved the big hair and go-go look. The choreography by Martel J. McCrary was sheer perfection as was the music played by a talented orchestra that took me back to those times of new-born political awareness and hopes for social change.
The only small disappointment in this play is that the author, producers and legal counsel – for reasons unknown – were unable to secure the rights to play Marvin’s copyrighted music. This slightly detracted from the play, an overall excellent production, in that fans came expecting to hear his most popular music throughout. However, from my perspective, the entire cast, including those behind the scenes more than made up for the noticeable absence of his famous lyrics. Those of us who knew and loved Marvin will forever have his music playing in our heads.
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.
My Brother Marvin: The Stage Play plays through March 10, 2013 at The Warner Theatre – 513 13th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 783-4000, or purchase them online.