CHICAGO – “He’s such a confused man, but he says so much in his music,” comments one character in the new stage work about Marvin Gaye (Rashawn Thompson) now playing at the Black Ensemble Theater (BET).
Under the auspices of CEO, founder, and general force of nature Jackie Taylor, BET has established itself over the last forty years in Chicago as a foremost chronicler of African American cultural, and particularly musical history. BET productions bring to life the way that music and the particular artists who created it have given shape and consciousness to a historical and political, as well as deeply personal experience at once vexed by repression within U.S. society, yet tenaciously vibrant with intellectual and creative energy.
Taylor’s shows in the past have focused on the lives and music of such creative personalities as Jackie Wilson, Teddy Pendergrass and Dionne Warwick and, in the productions Doo Wop Shoo Bop and Those Sensational Soulful 60s, charted whole decades in African American music.
Her current production, Don‘t Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend: The Marvin Gaye Story, written by her and directed by Daryl Brooks, continues this project of exploring and analyzing not just Marvin Gaye’s intimate life, but the larger historical trauma of African America. Gaye’s music, as Taylor’s drama tells the story, almost psychotherapeutically seeks to heal these personal and collective traumas.
The aesthetic mode, particularly music, that Taylor has focused on in her years-long project of cultural recovery, offers a clarity of understanding the confusions, the challenges, the repressions, joys, and persisting conundrums in African American life that other forms of expression simply cannot provide. She gives us a sense of celebration in Gaye’s music even as it gives voice to profound individual, familial and collective pain.
The challenge to Taylor’s storytelling and Brooks’ direction is to telescope three decades of Gaye’s life and career, from the ’60s to the ’80s, into a couple of hours. It required discerning judgment to choose the songs from his vast oeuvre to chart the meaning of his life in coordination with the larger scope of history. The show is brilliant at economically weaving its portrait of Gaye intertwined with the broad trajectory of politics and society. The writer and director explore his music as a way Gaye sought to heal his own painful fractures and tensions as well as the violence, convulsions and divisions in the larger political world.
The power of the erotic
While many of us might recognize his 1971 hit “What’s Goin’ On” as a direct response to the madness of the Vietnam War, in which his brother Frankie (Kevin Patterson) fought, as well as to the racial violence and injustice African Americans suffered at homes, we might not immediately think of his 1982 hit “Sexual Healing” as a political song seeking solution to the conflicts that violently divide us. But this telling of Gaye’s life interprets his music as a journey to discover and celebrate our erotic energies and selves, where the secret to making us whole again resides.
In this sense, Taylor offers us a re-interpretation of Gaye’s music that grants vital importance to the erotic as a fundamental political category, much as the astute political thinker and poet Audre Lorde does in her writings. Lorde, for example, explains the power of the erotic as a form of political practice, defining it as “our most profoundly creative source” and that which is “self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.” The erotic in her view exceeds the sexual arena, and can function as the central category through which we analyze racial and class oppression and social power dynamics generally.
In many ways, Taylor foregrounds the erotic as a source of self-affirmation and power ahead of more overt representations of racial politics, discussing racial politics and political issues through the discourse of the erotic. From the beginning, the play focuses on Gaye’s relationship with his father, who shot and killed Gaye in 1984, centering issues of contorted sexual identities in Gaye’s family life which Taylor represents (to borrow Lorde’s language) as part of the corruption and distortion of the erotic as a source of energy for change.
In a visit to the stage, the deceased yet angelic Marvin Gaye tells us the play is about forgiveness and understanding and not judgment. The play then opens with a scene of the young Marvin singing with Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows and contemplating, at Harvey’s direction, a move to Motown to start a career with legendary producer Barry Gordy. Once we see Gaye’s home life, we understand that this move would require defying the authority of his violent, repressive father (Henri Watkins), who rules his house abusively with an iron fist and objects to Marvin’s career, partly out of his own jealousy and rivalry.
Within this father-son relationship taboo topics are explored. We learn that Gaye’s father enjoyed wearing women’s clothing, and Taylor represents Marvin himself as insecure in his own masculine identity and even homophobic, blurting out in one scene, at an inappropriate and seemingly irrelevant moment, that he is not a homosexual, and in another scene talking about his father, in a pejorative way, as feminine. The moment suggests and – in a post-performance discussion with the audience – the director speculated that Gaye was sexually abused, not directly by his father but by another relative with whom his father was complicit.
Music as the means to liberation
In short, Gaye’s growing up in such an environment was the source of a deep fracturing, particularly around issues of sexual identity and expression, that cut him off from an important source of energy and information inside himself.
In one scene, we see this theme accentuated when we learn the origins of his hit song, the erotically charged anthem “Let’s Get It On.” Originally, the song was supposed to be about an addict abstaining from drug use and disciplining his body against desires. Gaye, however, refuses to sing such a song. In one of the most compelling scenes in the play he transforms the song into a lavish celebration of our sensual beings, asserting our erotic dimension as the means to liberation, transformation and wholeness, or disalienation.
Similarly, Taylor asks us to see Gaye’s love songs not simply as about romantic love between two people but as about erotic forces that bring together a people, who share a common history of oppression and resilience. The play features, for example, the famous duet Gaye sings with Tammi Terrell (Melanie McCullough) “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and highlights, I believe, the way the song is not just about romance and sexuality but about the kind of love that binds a community together in relationships of mutual aid and caring. We can hear a much broader sense of the erotic – the sense Lorde talks about – when we hear lyrics like: “If you need me, call me/You don’t have to worry/I’ll come in a hurry.”
Ultimately, Taylor represents Gaye’s music as the vehicle through which he worked out problems that were not his alone but also endemic to his larger community – issues of drug abuse, of self-hatred and self-doubt, and also intense and persistent social violence in a racist, war-mongering America that devalues Black lives.
In the perspective Taylor offers, Gaye’s music offers the lesson of love as a blueprint to healing and transformation. His hit song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” featured in the play, is a classic about love and betrayal. It offers a narrative lesson not just for relationships between individuals but for larger sets of social relationships on the community level. However, Taylor also shows the hurt Gaye inflicts on his wives as he makes his difficult life journey.
In the end, the Marvin Gaye angel returns to the stage to tell us, “I am whole again,” and to remind us that “We sing because we’re happy. We sing because we’re free.” Amidst the degradation and violence, the music gives expression to our possibilities – and our successes – of materializing a just and humane world and treating each other lovingly.
The music gives us this clarity about who we are, how we can be, the world we can achieve. Taylor gives us a play-as-ritual designed to provide us some healing and bring us closer to each other and closer to wholeness, deftly managing to make the particular a universal.
The Marvin Gaye Story plays at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago 60640. For tickets and further information, call (773) 769-4451, or visit their website here. Performances are Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, through July 10 only.
Photo: Black Ensemble Theater