Tony Grant as Marvin Gaye and Lia Grant as Tammie Terrell in a scene from the… (Andrew Potter/ )
Most people know how the story ends: “Singer Marvin Gaye shot twice by father on the eve of his 45th birthday.”
But not as many know the lifetime of events that culminated on that fatal afternoon in 1984 in a 25-room Hollywood mansion, when Marvin Gay Sr. retrieved a .38-caliber revolver, pointed it at his son and squeezed the trigger, shooting Marvin twice in the torso, once at point-blank range.
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.”