We heard it on the grapevine. The Motown Story is coming to the Black Repertory Group in Berkeley. And it’s got Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson, and Martha Reeves — all impersonated by actors, of course. But no Michael Jackson.
The stage drama with songs, loosely based on Raynoma Gordy Singleton’s vindictive tell-all book on Motown’s early years, is the brainchild of George Sledge, a Cleveland-based playwright and talent-show producer whose C-Town Performing Arts has produced some forty plays in that Ohio city, mostly with musical backgrounds, á la The Marvin Gaye Story and The Sam Cooke Story. “Two years ago,” says Sledge, “we did The Motown Story at the Cleveland Playhouse. In fact, it sold out quicker than any show in Cleveland Playhouse history.”
The two-act play tells the story of Motown founder Berry Gordy and his early artists, with a few songs sprinkled in plus a live musical entr’acte of Motown hits. The show eventually came to the attention of Dr. Mona Scott, director of the Black Rep. “At first Dr. Scott just wanted to buy the rights, but after talking to me she asked me to bring the play to California on tour,” Sledge recalls.
The first act focuses on the beginnings of the record label and its growth into a pop-cultural empire, but act two is typically devoted to the biography of one of a rotating cast of Motown artists. The play has a different second act in each city in which it is performed. For the Black Rep engagement, the subject is Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes, whose story is covered from girlhood until her tragic death in 1976 at the age of 32.
The Motown Story, starring Shanton V. Bland as Berry Gordy, with performers from the Black Rep and C-Town, opens at 8 p.m. Friday, November 8, at the Black Repertory Group, 3201 Adeline St., Berkeley, for four performances only through Sunday, November 10. Tickets: $12 advance, $15 door, children $7, seniors $5, at the box office or 510-652-2120. More info: www.blackrepertorygroup.org