When I discovered that a play was in the works examining the details surrounding the tragic death of Marvin Gaye, who was shot and killed by his father in 1984, I wanted in immediately. My love of Marvin has been well-documented here. I read his co-written autobiography Divided Soul when I was around 17 years old and became instantly enraptured by his voice, his persona and life story. That ill-fated day when his father, Marvin Gaye Sr, shot and killed his superstar offspring has played through my mind throughout the years, that all-important question as to why never really receiving an adequate explanation.
It’s this same burning question that forms the central theme in Roy Williams’ new play entitled SOUL: The Untold Story of Marvin Gaye, which explores the tumultuous forces that led to the tragic and deadly altercation. Roy was approached to write Soul in 2010 by the director of the play James Dacre, the artistic director of Royal and Derngate theatre, Northampton (where the production made its debut). Williams has stated that he’s a fan of Marvin’s music, but admits that he didn’t know a fair deal about the circumstances behind his death, so began the vigorous process of research via interviews, as well as reading every published biography, article and newspaper cuttings, and crucially, conducting detailed interviews with Gaye’s sisters – Jeanne and Zeola Gaye – the two surviving members of Marvin’s immediate family and main voices behind SOUL.
Before I commence with my review it has to be stated from the start: if you are a Marvin fan and are expecting a neatly packaged presentation of his life, replete with his signature hits and a chronological order of events pertaining to the significant moments of his life – you’ll probably be disappointed. Despite a few musical numbers peppered throughout the production, this is NOT a musical. Instead, Roy has chosen to focus on two key stages of Marvin’s life: his beginnings as a feisty, precocious budding talent who had charisma by the bucketload and used it to his advantage, and conversely, those last few weeks of his life when gripped by an accelerating addiction to drugs, he moved in with his parents to a home he had purchased in Los Angeles called The Big House, which sadly became the location for father and son’s deadly conflict.
Roy used Jeanne Gaye’s family memoir Bitter Sweet as the main source material for his play so the story is told (and narrated) from the perspective of Jeanne (played by Petra Letang), along with her sister, Zeola (played by Mimi Ndiweni). This at first takes some getting used due to the fact that the central characters of Gaye Jr & Gaye Sr are initially reduced to background figures; the formidable personalities of the sisters dominating most of the first act. However, it does serve a purpose as it establishes what the family dynamics were, who sided with who, and also illustrates how within any family set up we all see things differently. As the Gaye sisters paint a picture of family life we’re also granted access to the backstory of how Marvin’s parents met. Additionally, the seeds are sown regarding the disdain father and son had for each other, although, we’re not really given that much of an insight as to why, other than the fact that Marvin Sr was a staunch disciplinarian who took umbrage to his son’s outspoken and indignant ways. But isn’t that somewhat typical of the father and son dynamic? There was also an oedipal undercurrent that ran throughout the play (more on that later), which also attempted to shed some light on the life-long conflict that existed between the two.
During the first act Jeanne and Zeola zip through Marvin’s achievements: his rise to fame as a recording artist at Motown; followed by his transformation into a heartthrob and then a respected socially conscious artist. The trigger for Marvin’s rapid descent into depression and drug addiction was attributed to the death of his singing partner and dear friend Tammi Terrell (In his book Divided Soul, Marvin admitted that Tammi’s death affected him greatly, although I would say this was just one aspect of his melancholic adult life). The second act was considerably darker, relocating to the Big House and the brewing tension among the Gaye family.
So did I enjoy the production? Absolutely. I think it was raw, passionate and probing without being exploitative to the legacy of Marvin. The actors were all fantastic, leaving all their emotions all on the stage, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to telling this important story. As a bonafide Marvin fan I was especially keen on seeing what Nathan Ives-Moiba would bring to the table as an adult Marvin. At first, I felt he was a bit too brash and cocksure to convince me (Marvin always appeared softly spoken and quite modest in interviews) but as the play progressed he exposed a vulnerability and despair that seemed more in keeping with the personality of the self-proclaimed troubled man. It must also be said that Leo Wringer was incredible as Gaye Sr. Since the time of learning of Marvin’s death I without a doubt 100% blamed his father, there was no grey area for me. But through his portrayal (and also Roy’s/Jeanne’s interpretation of the turn of events) we are presented with a much more nuanced narrative. Yes, he was absolutely wrong for robbing Marvin of his life, but could it be argued that provocation came into play? Was there an element of self-defence involved? Had Marvin dangerously crossed the line by physically confronting his father (allegedly), a line that many parents of a certain generation often threatened would have dire consequences if crossed?
SOUL isn’t perfect. There are some things I felt didn’t work but respect Roy for making some tough decisions and staying true to his artistic vision. For instance, my biggest bug bear was the omission of several central characters in Marvin’s life. There was little reference to his brother Frankie, who Marvin was not only close to but was the main inspiration behind his ‘70s opus What’s Going On (Frankie served time in the Vietnam war). Similarly, there was no mention of Berry Gordy and Jan Gaye (his former wife, mother of his two children, and muse behind the sensually charged ‘I Want You’ album) – two significant and consistent figures throughout Marvin’s life. I can understand the need to streamline the cast of characters so we can focus on the relationship between father and son, but by failing to at least draw adequate attention to his family life and the challenges he faced coping with fame, does him a disservice and doesn’t accurately portray the full spectrum of his life.
And in reference to that Oedipus complex undercurrent that reared its head throughout SOUL. We gain a clear understanding from the start that Marvin was extremely close to his mother Alberta. Their closeness unsettled Gaye Sr and in one particular scene a warm embrace between the two was presented as the catalyst for the final showdown between father and son. But it was never fully explored whether there was any truth behind the accusations. In another scene Marvin seems to toe the line between genuine affection for his mother and something a little bit more eyebrow-raising. In a post-performance discussion, Roy was questioned about this controversial element of the script and admitted that it was something that one of Marvin’s sisters mentioned, but he didn’t believe it to be true, attributing it more to Gaye Sr’s irrational thinking more than anything else. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this should’ve been left on the editorial scrapheap as it seems to be merely speculative, and surely causes more harm than good.
It must be stated that despite the heavy subject matter it isn’t a strictly sombre affair. The few musical numbers that are performed by the cast and a choir – some of them hits, some of them lesser known tracks – are amazing and serves as a reminder why we love Marvin in the first place. And the glimpses of affection, love and gentle banter between the Gayes lay bare the beautiful imperfections that families are made of. I hope there is a swell of support for SOUL, and I’d genuinely love to hear what others thought of it as it was a difficult one to dissect.
Just as art should be.
SOUL by Roy Williams is showing at The Hackney Empire until 3rd July. For tickets book here.