Hackney musical explores tragic life and death of soul legend Marvin Gaye

Nathan Ives Moiba as Marvin Gaye and Abiona Omonua as Tammi Terrell in Soul. Picture: Robert Day

Nathan Ives Moiba as Marvin Gaye and Abiona Omonua as Tammi Terrell in Soul. Picture: Robert Day - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to the actor playing Marvin Gaye.

Nathan Ives Moiba as Marvin Gaye and Abiona Omonua as Tammi Terrell in Soul. Picture: Robert Day

Nathan Ives Moiba as Marvin Gaye and Abiona Omonua as Tammi Terrell in Soul. Picture: Robert Day - Credit: Archant

Many know Marvin Gaye for his string of soul hits and shocking death at the hands of his own father.

But a new play, Soul, which features the Hackney Empire Community Choir, spools back to the music legend’s upbringing and family life to explore what happened in those final haunting days.

For his searing probe into the pitfalls of the American dream, award-winning playwright Roy Williams interviewed Gaye’s sisters Zeola and Jeanne about their early life in Washington DC and the effect of his global stardom on the family.

Stoke Newington actor Nathan Ives-Moiba plays the adult Gaye as he segues from doo-wap performances in his father’s Pentecostal church to become one of America’s top stars.

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“People have been doing Marvin Gaye films for years, telling the more showbiz side of the story but Roy wanted to tell the sisters’ side; what Marvin was like growing up, what effect his stardom had on the family and the pressures he was under to provide for this family who had very little money and no experience of the dizzying world of global fame.”

Spanning Gaye’s life from the 50s to the 80s, Soul deploys the technique of a Greek chorus with the sisters narrating memories from Marvin’s religious upbringing and later life, accompanied by historic video footage and the Empire’s Community choir singing his songs. Ives-Moiba 26, and a young actor who plays the Heard it Through the Grapevine singer as a child also perform numbers,

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“I take up the story as his career starts to blow up,” says Ives-Moiba.

“Motown was an all black label run by black people who didn’t even have the vote and were operating in a white man’s world.

“The early days were about hustling every day to get the top.

“Marvin wanted to be the black Sinatra, this crooner.

“He finally got where he had always wanted to be and realised it was very lonely. He needed his family support and got them to move with him to LA.”

Gaye’s father was violent to both his children and his wife and there were tensions with the performer playing what his father called “devil’s music”. But through all the difficulties, the family struggled to stay together.

Against a backdrop of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war in which his brother fought, Gaye became politicised.

“He performed three albums with Tammi Terrell she encouraged him to find his political and spiritual voice and express who he was, not just as an R’n’B artist but as a politically and socially aware voice for change.”

Gaye was devastated when his kindred spirit and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough partner Tammi died of a brain tumour aged just 24. Ives-Moiba believes the singer was a “gentle soul” who turned to drugs to deal with the conflict and trauma in his life.

“There was crazy drug taking and violence and so much anger at home, but in essence he was a gentle man and his music is so much about love and heartbreak, freedom of expression and sexual expression.Through Tammi he saw his music as something that connected with people. When I was researching the part, listening to his music was essential to get a sense of the man. When an artist makes their art, whatever form it comes out, that’s the ultimate expression of themselves and their aspirations.”

Ives-Moiba insists the show isn’t a jukebox musical but “a meaty drama”.

“Music is an essential part of the story but it isn’t determined by the music, it bleeds into the piece and ties the themes together.”

He adds: “For me the soul in this story lies in the family set up; coming from violence and instability. His mother as a strong woman trying to create a strong foundation for the family, doing everything she could to hold this family together.”

And despite the tragic ending to Gaye’s life, the enduring message is one of forgiveness.

“It shows the impact of faith and forgiveness. In moving on, how forgiving will heal you.”

Soul runs at Hackney Empire from June 15 until July 3.

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