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Baltimore Theater Goes Behind the Music

By Cassandra Miller

I like to make soundtracks for different periods in my life with songs that reflect my experiences (ex. “Young Americans” by David Bowie for my years teaching English in Europe, “Good As Hell” by Lizzo for the weeks following a breakup, etc.).

America has a soundtrack for its experiences, too, and the 20th century inspired a pretty amazing one. This month, Baltimore audiences will get a chance to learn the story behind some of the music and musicians that reflected—and shaped—our cultural landscape in not one, but three new theatrical productions.

Baltimore Center Stage is tackling the grittier cousin of Motown music with the world premiere of SOUL: The Stax Musical, about the Memphis record label known for catapulting black consciousness music onto popular radio in the ’60s and ’70s with artists like Isaac Hayes and The Staples Singers while Motown was churning out shinier, more polished records by artists like The Temptations and The Jackson 5.

Two one-act plays by Rapid Lemon Productions will be performed together as Palindrome at the Baltimore Theatre Project. Thelonious Monk’s story is told in Sphere, which gives an intimate look into the psyche of the jazz icon through a single therapy session. Marvin Gaye is the focus of Pentz, which begins the morning the Motown legend is shot by his father and tells the “Let’s Get It On” singer’s life story through flashbacks. (Sphere and Pentz are the middle names of Monk and Gaye, respectively.)

Sweet Soul Music

Actors perform at scene from SOUL: The Stax Musical.

Baltimore Center Stage, one of the region’s top professional theaters, has had hits the last few years with shows that are heavily influenced by the soundtrack and tumultuous times of the ’60s and ’70s.

British-born former Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, who led the artistic programming at the theater from 2011 to 2018, is back in Baltimore to direct SOUL after accepting a leadership role at London’s Young Vic theater a few months ago. Kwei-Armah directed recent crowd-pleasing shows at Center Stage such as the world-premiere Bob Marley musical, Marley (which he also wrote), as well as the play One Night in Miami, which features the characters Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. He also gave the go-ahead for productions of Dominique Morrisseau’s Detroit ’67, set during that city’s incendiary summer, and last season’s emotional Donny Hathaway one-man show, Twisted Melodies.

SOUL: The Stax Musical director Kwame Kwei-Armah displays the model for the set during a rehearsal.

“I thought it would be great for Baltimore, this music,” Kwei-Armah says of presenting the story of Stax Records in this world premiere musical, which features plenty of singing and dancing. At a press event in early April, the musical was still a work-in-progress. The first act focuses on the early “sweet soul music” years of the Memphis-based record label, with artists like Otis Redding and Sam and Dave playing “safe” cross-over records. The second act delves into later records by artists influenced by the black consciousness movement, such as Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett and Johhnie Taylor (fun fact: Taylor’s son Jon and daughter Tasha are actors in SOUL). “Once King died, the game changed,” Kwei-Armah says of how Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 affected this music story. “We hear it in the lyrics.”

SOUL is not a documentary, but rather a telling of the “essence of the magic” of the Stax Records story set against a turbulent time in American history, according to Kwei-Armah. That essence includes a playlist stacked with hits, including “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers, “The Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes and “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding.

The story’s playwright, Matt Benjamin, has been working for several years on the script, which had a 2016 workshop at the University of Memphis before its world premiere this May in Baltimore. “Stax hasn’t gotten the recognition that Motown has,” he says. “People think it’s Motown, but it’s not. It’s very different. Motown was often a machine. It’s inspired still, but different.” He describes the Stax artists’ music as a “raw, organic, gritty response to their surroundings and lives.”

Kwei-Armah, who briefly had a career as an R&B singer in the early 2000s, says he listened to Stax music more than Motown music growing up in the U.K. “Stax was the funky stuff that didn’t mix down for consumption, they just let it get out. … ‘Shaft’ – that was the Wakanda, ‘The Black Panther,’ of the day. He [Isaac Hayes] represented blackness in its entirety.” Kwei-Armah compared the distinction between Stax and Motown to ’80s hip-hop (think Eric B. & Rakim and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five) and ’80s smooth R&B jams a la Lionel Ritchie and Luther Vandross.

Intimate Looks at Marvin Gaye and Thelonious Monk

David Mitchell performs as Thelonius Monk in a 2013 production of Sphere.

Probably one of Motown’s biggest stars, Marvin Gaye, didn’t completely shy away from commenting on his time—The anti-Vietnam War “What’s Going On” is one of his most iconic songs. However, Pentz (the Marvin Gaye companion piece in Palindrome) focuses on the singer’s turbulent personal history rather than the broader politics of the era. The other one-act being performed as part of Palindrome is Sphere, about Thelonius Monk, which also zooms in on the personal life of the artist.

The leaders of Rapid Lemon Productions, the company behind Palindrome, wanted to tell these musicians’ stories because of how influential they were to popular culture and modern history.

“This music is a huge part of American culture,” says Lance Bankerd, co-director of Pentz and artistic director of Rapid Lemon Productions. “Think of how many babies in America were made to their music.”

Actor Mike Smith, who plays Berry Gordy and Marvin Gaye’s father in Pentz notes the ubiquity of the Motown singer: “Marvin Gaye is everywhere. Even on Pandora, he’s on every station. If I’m listening to the Biggie Smalls station, Marvin Gaye pops up.”

While the plays will include music by Marvin Gaye and Thelonious Monk, as well as their contemporaries, neither is a musical, and the actors will not perform any of the artists’ songs during the performances. The focus is on their personal lives.

“It’s important to learn about these people’s lives to understand their music on a deeper level,” says Pentz co-director Lee Conderacci. “What part of this person’s life went into his art? You want to know more about the people who made the art.”

When Max Garner was working as a radio DJ in 1984, he remembers announcing Marvin Gaye’s death—two years after he’d announced on his college radio station Thelonious Monk’s death. Garner—who wrote both Pentz and Sphere and is managing director of Rapid Lemon Productions— says the characters have a lot in common: “Both were challenged by circumstances, both used and abused drugs, like lots and lots of people in the music business, and both had struggles with mental illness.”

These men’s stories are being told in a duo of one-acts that are getting fresh interpretations at Baltimore Theatre Project this May. Pentz started as a full-length play titled Marvin’s Trial that was produced in 2013 before evolving into the current one-act Pentz. Sphere got its start as a 10-minute play, and is now around an hour. Garner wrote the Monk script with Baltimore-based actor/director David Mitchell in mind. Mitchell, who is directing Sphere, performed as the iconic jazz artist in early runs of the show in 2011 and 2012 at various Baltimore locations and during the 2012 DC Black Theater Festival.

“It’s really different than the first couple of times we did it when I was the actor,” Mitchell says, emphasizing that the story will be told with different blocking, new production elements and fresh intentions. The intimate portrayal of the legend remains, though.

“You see him as a human being,” Mitchell says. “He went through certain challenges that were an impetus for some of his music and creativity. You see the human side of the jazz icon.”

Monk’s story is told through a single therapy session toward the end of his life and in flashbacks. Garner says it touches on the detrimental mental health and medication practices of the 20th century. “His career was ruined by prescribing practices,” he says.

Marvin Gaye’s story in Pentz is deeply connected to his personal trauma, which includes a father who eventually shot him to death, a brother who served in Vietnam, and a cocaine addiction. “His story was so compelling,” Garner says. “The more I studied, the more layers of an onion just came and came.”

All three of these stories are a study in the complicated layers of American history and its artists that created a soundtrack of a generation.

SOUL: The Stax Musical runs May 4-June 10 at Baltimore Center Stage. Click here for tickets and more information.

Palindrome (which includes the one-acts Sphere and Pentz) by Rapid Lemon Productions runs May 11-20 at Baltimore Theatre Project. Click here for tickets and more information.


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