Entertainment & Arts

Marvin Gaye's life on stage has family approval

Marvin Gaye Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Marvin Gaye was shot by his father in 1984

It's more than 30 years since Marvin Gaye, one of the great names of American soul music, was shot dead by his own father. There have been various plans for a feature film of his life though none has yet emerged. Now playwright Roy Williams has secured the Gaye's family agreement to put the story on stage.

The Royal & Derngate theatre in Northampton has a reputation for adventurous commissioning which few British theatres can match. Now it's stolen a march even on Hollywood by dramatising the life of soul superstar Marvin Gaye, 32 years after he was killed by Marvin Gaye senior.

Julien Temple is among the film directors who have worked on Gaye projects which encountered problems. Recently F. Gary Gray (director of Straight Outta Compton) has also expressed an interest in making a film about Gaye's dramatic life and death.

Soul is Roy Williams' theatrical take on a story which may appear utterly cinematic in scope. But Williams says the story is essentially an intense family drama and well-suited to the stage.

"About six or seven years ago I was approached to work on ways of telling the Marvin Gaye story. It was a challenge because I'd never written about a real-life person but I was sure there was a story there.

"I was always a fan of the music but in truth I knew very little about the family background. Then the producer Bob Blagden arranged for me to fly over to New York to meet Marvin's sisters, Jeanne and Zeola.

Image copyright Marc Brenner
Image caption Leo Wringer plays Marvin Gaye Senior in Soul

"So I spent a weekend with them and interviewed the sisters separately. The stories they were telling about the family growing up - especially about their mother Alberta and about Marvin Gaye senior - were illuminating.

"I thought there are very few people who know all this. Jeanne was incredibly generous in giving me access to her unpublished memoirs which had a big influence on what I've written.

"Like so many great dramas, it's basically about family. But it's also about music and sex and religion. Religion was hugely important to Marvin which I was keen to bring out."

Soul is a long way from a jukebox musical such as current West End hit Motown, but music features prominently.

In Northampton, and later when the play transfers to the Hackney Empire in London, there's a locally-recruited choir on stage.

The play's director James Dacre (who also runs the Royal & Derngate) says the play stands in a line with American drama by the likes of Tennessee Williams and August Wilson.

"Roy and I agreed the focus was the first chapter of Marvin's life and the final chapter. So we learn a lot about the Hebrew Pentecostal church, where his father was a pastor. The other main location is the big house in South Gramercy Place, Los Angeles which Marvin bought for his family in the 1970s.

"We don't go much into the central Motown years: there are people far better equipped to do that than we are. But we look at how the crushing effects of Marvin's stardom were felt at home. The two sisters tell the story, backed by the full weight of the congregation on stage.'

There's currently a lot of talk about improving diversity both on screen and in the theatre. But James Dacre says staging Soul is not just about drawing in black audiences.

"We're trying to produce brave art for a broad audience and Roy's play fits the bill," he says.

Image copyright Marc Brenner
Image caption Casualty actress Adjoa Andoh plays Alberta Gaye

Marvin's mother Alberta is played by Adjoa Andoh, familiar from series such as Casualty and Law & Order: UK. She says no one could produce a drama about Gaye without some reference to his music.

"He was a revolutionary musician and we don't neglect that. Without What's Going On there would never have been a Prince, and much else besides. But inevitably I see the story from Alberta's perspective and I've thought a lot about the relationship between Marvin and Marvin senior, which was tricky to say the least.

"There was certainly aggression in the family but you have to remember that both parents came out of a recent background of slavery. As a young woman Alberta was picking cotton on a white man's farm: the family was mired in violence.

"So there's a big contrast with the godly and the god-fearing. I think there was a huge amount of love in the Gaye family and Marvin yearned to be like his father. Marvin senior could be loving and attentive and the whole family was fuelled by a fervent love of God - but you can't deny he also had the Gaye family temper.

"I think Alberta could see a young lion/older lion head-butting thing going on and she had to cope with that. But all the time there's the energy of Marvin's music and what the hallelujah-ness of it. That's a big part of the play."

In the 1990s Roy Williams, now 48, became one of the first black British playwrights to make a name in the mainstream. But he says over the years he's debated with himself whether he likes being referred to as 'black British playwright' at all.

"I did think the label was limiting but now I've decided I'm happy with it. I think it's my responsibility to challenge what a 'black playwright' is - not to deny being one. When people use the phrase they have their own definition of what it means and I take some joy in challenging that."

Image copyright Marc Brenner
Image caption Nathan Ives Moiba plays Marvin Gaye

Williams says he was delighted when diversity became such a topic before this year's Oscar ceremony.

"But at the same time I thought it might all just go away again: it's happened before. But this time it hasn't and I've been trying to work out why that might be.

"I think it's the genius and the brilliance of social media and a sign of how the nature of debate has changed. We're living in a 24-hour online world and it means people can't get away with things they did a few years ago, letting a major topic drop after a couple of spins of the news cycle. Organisations like act-for-change.com are continuing to push - and good for them."

So does Roy Williams now feel more pressure to write 'black plays' and provide good roles for black performers, as he's done with Soul?

"That's the life I signed up for. I just need to suck it up and get on with it - and I'm glad to. I enjoy writing: it's who I am."

Soul is at the Royal & Derngate theatre in Northampton until 11th June. It transfers to the Hackney Empire from 15 June.

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