What's going on? The story of a Motown icon

Marvin Gaye's life unfolds in latest Black Ensemble production

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By La Risa Lynch

For playwright Jackie Taylor, the turbulent life of 60s Motown icon Marvin Gaye was a story that had to be told.

"I am just a believer that all of our stories that pertain to the genius of who we are as human beings and who we are as African Americans need to be told," Taylor said of her latest production, "The Marvin Gaye Story."

The play runs now through July 29 at Black Ensemble's new theatrical home located at 4450 North Clark St.

"Marvin was certainly way ahead of his time and was a pure genius in his work," she added. "That needs to be understood... and not forgotten. The only way for it to not be forgotten is to continue telling the story."

And in her usual flare, Taylor infuses toe-tapping live musical numbers with biographical sketches to recreate Gaye's life story. The play takes audiences on a musical journey of Gaye's early music career as a shy backup singer for a doo wop group to his meteoric rise to become the "Prince of Motown."

Hands will clap and heads will bob as a live band cranks out such memorable hits as "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Distant Lover" and "Pride and Joy." RaShawn Thompson, who plays Gaye, evokes his personae while gyrating to "Let's Get It On." Thompson's voice melds with Melanie McCullough, who plays Tammi Terrell, whose untimely death had a profound effect on Gaye.

Taylor punctuates the musical numbers with gripping snippets of the singer's complex life - where family, secular music and religion clashed with deadly consequences. In 1984 Gaye was killed by his preacher father, Marvin Gaye Sr., in a family altercation.

Taylor offers an emotive glimpse of Gaye's struggle to reconcile fame with his strict religious upbringing and the heartache his family suffered at the hands of an abusive father.

Taylor, who wrote and directed the play, spared nothing. The musical delve into the soul crooner's drug addiction, philandering and the inspiration for his most poignant song, "What's Going On," which was an ode to his brother's time in the Vietnam War. It's no wonder why Gaye's family reached out to Taylor to do the play. The family has yet to see it.

"It was important that people understood why Marvin was how he was, because the drugs had a lot to do with shaping his character," Taylor said.

Much of Gaye's inner strife was shaped by his father. He ruled the household with an iron fist. But Taylor purposely didn't portray the tensions between Gaye and his father, played by Ronald Barnes. Instead, Taylor showed that strife through the elder Gaye's relationship with his wife and children. Gratuitous violence, Taylor said, has no place in her plays.

"It is enough to be impacted by it. It is enough to be aware of it, but to glorify it?" Taylor asked. "That's why you didn't see the father shoot his son. You know it happened. Putting it in front of your face and having to relive that sickness all over again, I just don't find that fascinating."

There's a lesson in the play Taylor wants the audience to walk away with. Even with all the turmoil and pain one can cause another, Taylor said, there's power in forgiveness. It was a hard lesson she had to learn when a drunk driver killed her brother. She admits she "went crazy with hatred" for her brother's killer.

"It was eating me alive and none of that would have brought my brother back," said Taylor, who often writes plays with uplifting messages. "I finally had to let it go. I finally had to forgive that man for his sickness and let it go, because holding on to it was destroying me."

When asked if she believes Gaye forgave his father, Taylor said she didn't know.

"I think it is important to understand how to forgive," she said.

For more information or for tickets visit www.blackensembletheater.org.

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