Marvin Gaye tribute morphs into avant-garde theatre piece
An invitation to stroll down Memory Lane is easy to issue and similarly easy to accept: Familiar strains from familiar songs invoke a nostalgia that seems criminally cynical to resent, but sometimes, the nostalgia is just a dim shadow projection forced onto a thin polyester sheet.
Last Friday and Saturday night at Cité des Arts, a small community theater and self-described “education incubator” unassumingly located down Vine Street under a modest marquee that heralded the night’s attraction, saw a two-night tribute to soul legend Marvin Gaye that had one foot in Motor City and one foot planted tenuously in the the “Twilight Zone,” a dimension not only of sight and sound but of the innate manipulable subjectivity of the human mind’s perception.
Cité des Arts was place of both shadows and substance as off-brand John Legend and local soul-singer Georgi’o Green and the Georgettes walked us through the musical highlights of Marvin Gaye’s life, assisted by Morgan City’s Laylla Fox in the short-lived role of Tammi Terrell. The event was arranged as a chronologically progressive ordering of Gaye’s catalogue that had Green perform select songs from each stage of Gaye’s career in blocs orchestrated to typified each unique period of his career.
After each block of songs, the stage area was plunged into darkness as Green held his pose, transfixed in the shadows. A spotlight was then beamed onto the Georgette on the far left, who would deliver in varying cadence the events of Gaye’s life that occurred in this period and their effects on his musical performance and personal health. It was during these interludes that Green could, under cover of darkness, slip through the purple-black curtains that draped the rear of the stage to then change into different-colored sequined blazers or, for ‘70s-era Gaye, a knit beanie and modestly extravagant red button-down shirt.
Local comedian Jerry Guillory made his way into the light during the 20-minute intermission to deliver a story about his foster son who gave the wrong answer to his teacher about which U.S. president said to not ask what your country can do for you.
Green’s performance seemed, at times, to leave too much in the hands of the audience, rarely fully committing to Gaye’s inherent sensuality but instead coyly courting it. His interactions with Fox during the Gaye-Terrell lacked a chemistry that was apparent in their fumbled reaches for each other and awkward hugs as each song faded out. Song resolution was tricky due to the fade-outs on these presumed karaoke tracks: Green and Co. were often left somewhat out to dry to finish their lines a cappella and early on seemed hesitant to stand independent of the backing-track. However, the wacky charm of the performance was undeniable.
“I feel healed,” said Jade Delaney, one of the few youth of the audience — a self-described trainwreck with a cast on her leg and a floral dress on most of everything else. And at the end of the night, or whatever that was, that is what matters.
The entire evening had a slightly surreal bend to it: a product of the absence of a live band, which lent a Lynchian Club Silencio atmosphere to the intimate theatre; the combination of two hazy projections of the singers — one stage left and one stage right — between which a half-hearted ballet of green lights pinwheeled. From the cameraman slouched behind his tripod and camcorder to the octogenarians delightfully scandalized by Green’s plea to, again and again, “get it on,” there were wide open spaces that debated the validity of impersonators as simply nostalgia machines or whether the act of homage and tribute can be more than a bastardization of another’s work for personal gain.
The bombastic tribute to Prince by Bruno Mars’ and The Purple One’s old collaborators The Time at the Grammys last Sunday is an example of an homage that, while technically proficient and excellent in its intentions, comes across as cheap and grating: modern funk-boi Mars’ donning of Prince’s signature look was a fascinatingly weird appropriation of a recently-deceased icon’s charisma. Things like this provide a kind of testimony to the idea that there is an eternal search for what life cannot deliver to us — essentially that there is a desire to momentarily live in an epoch or singular experience that is unattainable due to the perception of time as linear. Let’s get it on.