Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.
(l-r) Rashawn Thompson, Kyle Smith, Renelle Nicole and Melanie McCollough. Photo by Danny Nicholas
I have the utmost respect for the foundation established by Jackie Taylor and her ability to produce stories that people genuinely gravitate towards. She has created 40 years of excellence with the Black Ensemble Theater and why not kick off the Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th Anniversary with none other than THE MARVIN GAYE STORY; DON’T TALK ABOUT MY FATHER BECA– USE GOD IS MY FRIEND, directed Daryl Brooks. Mr. Brooks did a tremendous job in delivering Taylor’s musical bio of Marvin Gaye. It takes great care to ensure that both the visual and musical aesthetic of such a production remains intact when retelling the life story of someone as great as that of Marvin Gaye’s life.
THE MARVIN GAYE STORY delivers some untold truths that many may not have known about Gaye and his life. The play shines a light on his suffering from depression and mental illness, which was rooted deeply in years of extensive abusive and hatred from his father. The play shows the effect abuse can have on a person, especially a child, and how that abuse carries with the child throughout their adult life. Though it is rather glossed over in a dedicated scene, Marvin Gaye was an artist in the same sense that Picasso was a great painter. Gaye’s attention to music details and construct of lyrics is what makes him a living legend even after death. The play exposed what I have known for years as an educator, that children simply want the love of their parents, and they yearn that love regardless of a parent’s flaws. Gaye’s father’s unwillingness to love his son crippled him into seclusion with music, the world, and himself.
What the play does well is evoke emotions and nostalgia through decades of great music. It is evident in the production that Music Director Robert Reddrick took great care in delivering such legendary music to the audience. Little forgiveness will be given if accuracy doesn’t reflect what the ears are used to hearing. However, Reddrick makes sure that the sound of Marvin Gaye—the music we love and many have grown up listening to—remains true to the original scores. Brooks is brilliant with incorporating the entire band on stage for much of the performance. The music and energy the live band sends out into the crowd is just as integral to the story as the singing itself.
Furthermore, the acting coupled with the singing of the main characters makes for dynamic storytelling. Rashawn Thompson isn’t an exact match to Gaye, though his charisma, acting, and a shadow of likeness should pull the viewer away from comparing. Thompson’s vocals definitely warrant recognition. He’s able to find his own fluidity in the arrangement of Gaye’s music, which is a challenge for any singer, but Thompson completely submerges himself into the persona of Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye Sr., played by Henri Watkins, is a man who was plagued deeply with serious mental health illness and was abusive to his family. Watkins takes us into an extremely deep and dark space to deliver Gaye Sr. and he forces us to believe this imagery.
There are times when the depth of the story is sacrificed for the singing and music. Considering this is a musical biography, this small criticism does not take away from the production. I watched women who clearly grew up listening to Marvin Gaye easily get swooned by Thompson as if he was truly Gaye in the flesh. I watched and listened as audience members couldn’t resist singing each song and waving hands in the air as if they were being transported back in time. Such a movement among the audience demonstrates the power and transcendency of Gaye’s music.