Among fans of Marvin Gaye — the R&B icon who sang about love, pain, war and social injustice in hits including “What’s Going On?,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and the Grammy-winning “Sexual Healing” — questions have lingered all these years: Why would his father, an ordained Pentecostal minister, kill his own son? Asked in a jailhouse interview whether he loved his son, Gay said: “Let’s say that I didn’t dislike him.”
The shooting was one of those moments carved into cultural memory. If you are old enough, you remember where you were when you heard the news. The scene is echoed by one in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” and even now, videos of Gaye’s concerts remain popular on YouTube.
In the play “My Brother Marvin,” the singer’s younger sister, Zeola Gaye, sets out to answer those lingering questions and to tell her story of growing up with a father who was a strict disciplinarian and who said more than once to his children: “I brought you into this world and I will take you out.” The play, starring Lynn Whitfield, Clifton Powell and Keith Washington, opens Tuesday at Warner Theatre.
“For all these years, so many people have been angry with my father, but my father was not a monster,” Zeola Gaye said in an interview Sunday night after the last performance of the play at Lyric Opera House in Baltimore.
Zeola, 67, a retired accountant who sang background on “What’s Going On,” said her reason for producing the play, which is based on her memoir, was to help “the audience to find closure. They need to know what actually happened. I’m honest about the dynamics between my brother and my father. The audience needs to know how there were generational curses.”
”The play is not a musical,” she cautions. She was denied permission by Gaye’s estate to use his music. “My play is not a Motown play,” she says. “The play is about the man behind the music. I tell my story. I was there.”
Jeanne Gay, Marvin’s eldest sister, said she supports the play and the book. “The book was very good and truthful,” she said, “and the play portrayed the book and it, too, was truthful.”
A spokesman for Sony/ATV Music Publishing confirmed that “the songs had not been licensed to be used in this play.” Gaye’s estate, which is controlled by his children, makes decisions on how his music is used.
Whitfield, who won an Emmy for HBO’s “The Josephine Baker Story,” said the play explains the dynamic between Marvin’s mother, Alberta, and his father. “I don’t think people know just how complex his relationship was with his father and just how much he adored his mother, this gentle rock who was there for him,” she said.
The play begins with a scene in Southeast Washington where Marvin Gay Jr. (he added the “e” later) grew up in a house on First Street near the wharf and railroad tracks. “We were poor,” Zeola recalls, “barely making it.”
There was a coal stove in the living room, and Marvin and his brother Frankie were assigned to shovel the coal for it. “There were rats in the neighborhood, and Mother used to have rat traps laying around inside the house. We had a TV with an antenna you make from a clothes hanger. But we always had food.”
Alberta worked as a domestic. “Mom would go to work and bring home food. Father had a disability check from a slipped disc in his back.”
“Father, sometimes when he drank he was very friendly, sometimes he would be mean,” recalled Zeola, who was six years younger than Marvin. “But I didn’t connect it to alcohol. I connected it with a full moon.” He wouldn’t let the children go outside and play with other children because of the strict teachings of his religion.
The house contained secrets. Their father was a cross-dresser. He loved soft, pretty things. It was a secret that would torment Marvin as he rose to fame and battled depression and cocaine addiction. Zeola, too, battled drug addiction.
“Father had some effeminate ways that made him seem gay, such as how he crossed his legs and his affinity for feminine clothing,” Zeola says. “Maybe my father’s feminine side showed stronger than the masculine, but he was definitely heterosexual. . . . I know he loved women because he cheated on Mom quite often.”
She says her father’s mystique was only heightened by his dress. “He wore short wigs and cashmere, silk and satin dinner jackets and silk pajamas. . . . Father took pride in his beautiful legs, and wore pantyhose and knee-high stockings to protect against varicose veins.”
Their father was especially hard on the rebellious Marvin, she said. “When my father spanked us, he believed in hitting on the butt, which is what the Bible said. Marvin would stuff his pants with washcloths.”
Marvin, she said, was her protector. “He would take the blame so I wouldn’t get a spanking,” she recalled.
As a child, Marvin began singing in the church choir and in school. He attended Cardozo High School before leaving home at 17 to join the Air Force. He received an honorable discharge and returned to Washington to join a group called the Moonglows. He eventually moved to Detroit, where he was discovered by Berry Gordy Jr. of Motown and produced his first of many hits, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.”
As Marvin became more successful, he moved his family to the mansion in Hollywood. He provided stacks of money to his parents, always trying to win the approval of his father, who believed he sang “the devil’s music.”
Despite his success, Marvin struggled with his addictions, depression and paranoia. He married and divorced twice, engaged in titanic custody battles over two of his three children and wound up broke and desperate.
Zeola said she understands why crowds line up to attend her play. “They want to know why, why my father shot him. But the truth is, Marvin didn’t want to live.”
He had just gone through a divorce and had not seen his two youngest children in months. “He had troubles with the Mafia not giving him money from his last tour,” she said. “He was depressed and addicted.”
Days before the shooting, Marvin Gaye had jumped out of a speeding car. He was scraped up badly. “He said: ‘I don’t feel creative anymore. I just don’t want to be here,’ ” Zeola said. “He wanted to die. People needed to know how he planned his death. Father always said, ‘If you put your hand on your parents, I will kill you.’ ”
Her father had always thought Alberta was too doting on Marvin. On that fatal afternoon, the mother was attending Marvin’s injuries. The father entered the room and saw the mother cleaning his wounds. “He saw him lying there with no clothes. He had a robe on but nothing else,” Zeola says. The scene, which enraged his father, was orchestrated, Zeola believes.
“Marvin planned his death,” she said. “By this time, the addiction had taken a toll.” She said that Marvin Gaye was paranoid and believed someone was trying to kill him. “Demons had set in. He just went off on my father. He pushed him down and kicked him. Father came back in the room and shot him. Marvin knew if he ever touched Father, my father would kill him. . . . It was a mercy killing. Father took Marvin out of his misery.”
My Brother Marvin
at Warner Theatre, 513 13th Street NW, Washington, DC. Through Sunday.