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Star of ‘The Marvin Gaye Story’ is something like the real thing



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Updated: July 3, 2012 11:43AM

The fix was in from the start for Marvin Gaye, the singer-songwriter known as “the Prince of Soul,” who throughout the 1960s and ’70s had phenomenal success on the Motown Record label and later on Columbia. And this is the key to “The Marvin Gaye Story,” the new Black Ensemble Theater production, written and directed by Jackie Taylor, that comes bearing the subtitle, “Don’t Talk About My Father, Because God Is My Friend.”

Like his God-fearing mother and three siblings, Gaye was the victim of severe emotional and physical abuse by his namesake father, a minister in Washington, D.C., who suffered from profound psycho-sexual problems. And while Marvin Jr.’s enormous talent (and early rebellion) might have served as the crucial antidote to his dysfunctional family legacy, the early wounds proved too deep and too enduring to ever heal.

Plagued by the demons of self-loathing and self-doubt, the younger Gaye continually undermined his career and his potential happiness. And in the end — which came at the age of 44, when in 1984 his own father shot and killed him — the event seemed like a murder and a suicide in one. Yes, recounting the story of Marvin Gaye means taking a walk on the dark side.

Taylor’s show certainly captures the inner angst of the man, and the terrible dynamics of the family that forever haunted him. But while it is comprised of a number of fierce individual scenes and the dynamic musical numbers you expect from the Black Ensemble, it is too long and sluggish in its overall pacing. And not until midway through the second act does it evoke the intensely sexual stage presence associated with Gaye — a once-shy performer deeply ambivalent about that other persona.

The shift occurs when Gaye (played by Rashawn Thompson, a subtle actor who conjures the sultry voice if not quite the overt allure of Gaye) sings “Sexual Healing” and chooses to make one particular woman in the audience very happy. (There was no shortage of volunteers at the performance I attended.)

The epilogue, like the show’s opening, also is ill-advised. Clearly designed to put a “feel-good” spin on all the darkness, it has Marvin speak to us from beyond the grave, putting a gloss of forgiveness and redemption on his relationship with his father that might be more than a little difficult to believe.

Along the way we meet Gaye’s twisted, tyrannical father (the excellent Donald Barnes); his tormented mother, Alberta (a knockout turn by Yahdina U-Deen, who tears up the room in “Distant Lover,” as well as in Taylor’s original song “Oh My God”), and his adoring younger brother, Frankie (the endearing Lawrence Williams), who signed up for the Army during the Vietnam War just to escape his father, and was the inspiration for Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.”

We also see Gaye’s interactions with Harvey Fuqua (Lyle Miller), his early mentor from his days with the doo-wop group the Moonglows; with Motown’s Berry Gordy (a snappy Rueben D. Echoles), who offers endless support and loyalty to this uncooperative, drugs-and-depression-plagued megatalent, and Anna Gordy (a spiky Katrina V. Miller), Berry’s sister and the older woman who became his first wife.

The show’s first act is comprised of songs by Ashford & Simpson, and Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”), while the more tightly focused second act is full of Gaye’s own work (“Let’s Get It On,” “Save the Children” and others). The onstage band of seven top musicians under the direction of Robert Reddrick is a powerhouse throughout.

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