On April 1, 1984, one day shy of his 45th birthday, legendary soul singer Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his own father, Marvin Gay, Sr. The events leading up to that tragedy are explored in a show that opened at the Fisher Theatre last night, Zeola Gaye’s “My Brother Marvin.” The play, written by Detroit’s Angela Dunlap, is based on a memoir by Marvin’s younger sister, Zeola, who discovered her late parents’ papers – thought to be destroyed – and used them to shed light on events that culminated in her brother’s death.
As explained in an exclusive interview with the show’s director and featured performer, Clifton Powell, the play is intended as a retrospective on the man behind the music. And although Marvin Gaye’s own music is not used in this production, there are many moving performances by the three actors who play Marvin at various points in his career.
The show opens with all three “Marvins” on stage singing the national anthem – which the soul singer did on a couple of notable occasions, infusing the song with his signature silky vocals.
We then meet young Marvin, a boy who is filled with the spirit when singing in his father’s church. Although the boy sincerely believes that his gift is from God, he is brutalized by the Rev. Gay, who insists that Marvin is singing “the devil’s music.” This establishes the pattern that eventually proves fatal – with father and son at odds, and the devout Christian mother and wife caught between the two men she loves.
We quickly learn that the senior Mr. Gay is battling his own demons. Having been abused by his mother, he physically abuses his own children. He takes to drink, erupts in violent and irrational bouts of paranoia, and lives as a closet cross-dresser while preaching a strictly conservative lifestyle from the pulpit. And whatever seems to go wrong in his life, the father seemed to blame young Marvin for everything.
The play unfolds as a series of short scenes in which we glimpse key moments in Marvin’s career – his success with Barry Gordy and Motown records, his introduction to the drug scene, his failed marriages, and the tragic death of his beloved singing partner, Tammy Terrell, to brain cancer. This gives the show one of its best moments – a rendering of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” by the bereaved Marvin.
This loss throws him into a bout of depression and drug use. He breaks free from Motown and has success with his own new album, “What’s Going On,” which he says was “produced by God.” He prays for and finds healing for his mother when she is diagnosed with cancer. But even while expressing faith in the goodness of God, he struggles against his dual demons – addiction and depression.
Of course, we know where everything is heading – to that final confrontation. This play sheds light on the nature of that last argument – revealing what made Marvin finally get physical with his father, and what drove the elder Marvin to go get his gun. We won’t spoil that by revealing it here. But when a depressed, broken-down Marvin Gaye has one last violent encounter with his irrational father, his mother still tries to get between them. To save them both. Ultimately this proves impossible. The demons that have pushed father and son finally force this fatal collision.
In a short curtain speech, Ms. Zeola Gaye steps out to explain her motives for going public with the details of her dysfunctional family life. She loved her brother. She loved her troubled father But addictions ruined their lives. Her mother was a visible saint, but she perhaps suffered most, watching helplessly as drugs and alcohol devoured those she loved. Ms. Gaye urged the audience to remember her brother’s legacy as a beautiful man with a beautiful gift, and honor him by seeing that loved one’s with addictions get help early.
This show features an amazing cast that includes wonderful dancers performing incredibly athletic numbers. Director Clifton Powell, plays the senior Marvin Gay. Detroiter, Grammy nominated R&B Singer, actor and radio host Keith Washington and veteran urban theatre actor and R&B singer Anthony Grant share the role of the Marvin Gaye. Emmy Award-winning actress Lynn Whitfield (“The Josephine Baker Story”) is also wonderful as Marvin’s beloved mother. And the talented Lia Grant plays a variety of the women who figured prominently in Marvin Gaye's troubled life.