By Eelisa Jones
On Tuesday July 7, 2015, Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (MCPA) welcomed the cast and crew of the Broadway jukebox production, Motown the Musical. The production will remain in Milwaukee until its last performance on Sunday July 12 at 6:30 PM. Featuring over 50 classic Motown hits like The Four Top’s “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and The Jackson 5’s “I want You Back,” Motown the Musical focuses on the trials and tribulations of its founder, Berry Gordy, as he works to establish Motown as one the most influential record companies within U.S. history.
Gordy created Motown (an abbreviated version of the phrase “motor town”) in Detroit, MI around January 1959. The company quickly became a means to promote black music, support black artists, and integrate Americans of all races through entertainment. Within the context of a music culture dominated by white performers, producers, and sales representatives, Motown became an essential catalyst for racial integration during a period of prevailing segregation.
Between 1961 and 1971, Motown released over one hundred “Top 10” hits. Motown’s artists included Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Temptations, Lionel Richie, Boyz II Men, and Erykah Badu. After a series of ownership transfers that began in 1994, Motown reemerged in 2011 as a subdivision of the Universal Music Group.
During an interview with The Milwaukee Courier, performance artist Martina Sykes (who plays Gwen Gordy, Mary Wells, and two additional supporting roles) said that Motown the Musical’s most recent tours may not only serve as a source of entertainment and a history lesson, but may also serve as a medium by which to address today’s racial climate.
“I think [Motown the Musical] is important not only in the theater world, but also in the nation right now,” said Sykes.
Sykes recalled her experience during a 2014 performance of Motown the Musical at the Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis, MO. Sykes performed shortly after the Department of Justice refused to indict Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson for human rights violations after he shot and killed an 18-year-old named Michael Brown. During this performance, Sykes said, parts of the audience would applaud when Gordy’s character claimed that “Not all cops are bad cops”; others cheered in support as Marvin Gaye’s character sang “What’s Going On.”
“It let me know that the musical is so much more than entertainment,” said Sykes. “It’s real life.”
Producers Kevin McCollum (Rent, In the Heights, Avenue Q), Doug Morris (Chairman and CEO of SONY Music Entertainment), and Berry Gordy (founder of Motown) created Motown the Musical several years after Gordy published his autobiography “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown” in 1994. Director Charles Randolph-Wright, in collaboration with choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, premiered Motown the Musical on Broadway in April 2013.
Motown the Musical will have their last Milwaukee performances Saturday, July 11 at 2 PM and 8 PM; and July 12 at 1 PM and 6:30 PM.
Readers can call the MCPA Box Office at (414) 273-7206 or visit the MCPA website at www.marcuscenter.org.