Revamped production explores final days of Marvin Gaye

Keith Washington (right) stars as Marvin Gaye in a new, tell-all play.
Keith Washington (right) stars as Marvin Gaye in a new, tell-all play.
Posted: February 15, 2013

"EVERYBODY knows what happened to Marvin," acknowledged Zeola Gaye, speaking of her masterful musician brother Marvin Gaye. "Or at least, they think they know . . . "

Motown Records's first solo superstar and major force for social reform, Gaye was abruptly killed at age 45 on April 1, 1984, by his father's hand, after a brutal argument and several attempts by the younger Gaye to take his own life.

The tragedy cut short a career landmarked by masterworks such as Gaye's self-penned "What's Going On" and super-bold (for its time) "Sexual Healing," plus definitive treatments of classics such as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (with Tammi Terrell) and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

As his "best friend and companion, substitute mother and father, valet and backup dancer and road manager," Zeola Gaye shared the limos on world tours, the recording sessions and, yes, the "mind-messing" cocaine, she now admits.

One of two surviving sisters, "Zee" Gaye thought she'd told all in her autobiography, My Brother Marvin, and in a companion musical play of the same name, which played at the Merriam Theater six years ago and was "quite successful across the country," she recalled in a recent chat.

But now the work has been reshaped and reborn in a new production opening in Philly on Tuesday after a few shakedown performances at the Fisher Theater, in Detroit. The 2013 rendering hosts much the same cast, including actor and show director Clifton Powell as the sometime preacher and harshly punishing Marvin Gaye Sr.; veteran neo-soul singer/actor Keith Washington as the iconic music star in his older years; and Emmy-winning actress Lynn Whitfield as his wife. Tony Grant and Elijah Johnson play Marvin as a young adult and youth, respectively.

Also back on board is playwright Angela Barrow-Dunlap, a leading figure of urban theater who has populated the Merriam with stage plays such as "Real Men Pray," "If these Hips Could Talk, " "Why Do Good Girls Like Bad Boyz?" and "Church Girl" - the latter adapted into a made-for-BET movie.

The new stagework, still called "My Brother Marvin" is told from Zeola Gaye's perspective, and it's more focused on the family dynamic, less about Marvin's career. She explains, "It's now more a play with music than a musical, more the story of the man behind the music."

So what possessed the team to do it again, differently? Zeola Gaye said that she needed to revisit the subject after a belated discovery of her late mother's journal and a cache of her father's letters. "We discovered things people didn't know." Things, she hints dramatically, that "will change your understanding of what happened, that correct some long-held misconceptions spread by the media." These revelations that may make us feel more kindly about her "stern but loving father, who died a broken man."

A call from the great beyond also encouraged singer/actor Keith Washington.

Washington is a graceful singer (often compared to the late Luther Vandross) whom you might recall from popular Quiet storm- style tracks and albums recorded in the 1990s for Silas Records and Quincy Jones' QWEST label.

Since his last go-round as Gaye, the performer has been occupied as a DJ on a Detroit R&B radio station aligned with the Radio One group. "When they approached me to take a leave and do this again, I was hesitant," he said recently. Marvin Gaye acquaintances such as Martha Reeves had encouraged him. "She said 'You're like Marvin all day long.' That gave me some urgency and encouragement.

"Then something really strange happened in my house. For whatever reason, my radio came on. It wasn't on a timer, my dog wasn't big enough to jump up and accidentally turn it on. I was in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, thinking 'Do I really want to do this, have to go there emotionally, with the hurt, the pain Marvin endured?' I'm a method actor, not just bring it on the stage, but live the part all day long.

"So then I'm walking out of the bathroom, and the radio suddenly comes on, and it's Marvin singing 'Let's Get It On.' And it stopped me dead in my tracks. 'Aww Marvin,' I yelled. 'Come on man. So you REALLY want me to do this?' It just blew me away."

Oddly, the music publishers who license the rights to the Gaye catalog were not encouraging. While the original stage version of "My Brother Marvin" was well salted with his hits, "our producers couldn't make a deal for the material this time around," said Zeola Gaye. "But everybody knows that material anyway. They hear it in their heads."

The creative team has inserted other "period piece" songs and also some originals, with Washington contributing two or three, depending on how the show shakes down. "We've got a hot, nine-piece band, everything's live, and the music fits in great," he enthused.

Washington hopes "My Brother Marvin" will allow him "to reintroduce myself to people as a singer." He's just put out a new self-published, iTunes-only single, too.

"We're currently booked into the spring," he said. "But as long as we've got legs, we're gonna keep walking."

Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Feb. 23, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24, $33.50-$55, 215-893-1999,


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