In the immortal words of Smokey Robinson: “Get ready, get ready!”
Robinson may have written those words for The Temptations back in 1966, but Rockville actor-producer-playwright-director-performer Kashi-Tara has written a modern two-act musical that is about to raise the roof at the Arts Barn in the Kentlands.
“The idea was to do a tribute to Motown,” said Kashi-Tara, whose “Heard it Through the Grapevine — Motown Moments Tribute” opens Friday, July 13. “And I was trying to figure out what perspective to use to tell that story. I got focused on Berry Gordy.”
So, while the music of Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Tammi Terrell, Mary Wilson and even young Michael Jackson will be featured, the storyline follows the founder of Motown Records, a Detroit native who rose from writing songs for Jackie Wilson to becoming one of the world’s most successful music moguls.
“In 1988, Berry Gordy had to decide whether or not to sell Motown to MCA Records,” Kashi-Tara explained. “The story is that he did sell, for $61 million.” When he did that, she added, “there was a huge backlash from the African American community — and from some of the artists within Motown — because he was the first African American record-label owner.”
For Motown’s artists and fans, Gordy’s reign as the head of Motown represented a golden age of music. He had plowed his songwriting profits back into the music business, becoming a producer and establishing his own record company in 1959 and incorporating as The Motown Record Company in 1960.
“It was something to be proud of,” said Kashi-Tara.
Kind of like The Finest Performance Foundation, Inc., which was incorporated in 2011 to provide less expensive, more inclusive musical theater opportunities in the Rockville area. The foundation features four core programs that “use the arts to heal, teach, bridge cultures and promote global peace” while developing character, confidence and leadership skills in youngsters.
“The parents were interested in putting their kids in something that didn’t cost a whole, whole lot of money,” explained Karen Rawlins, CEO and board president of the Finest Performance Foundation, Inc. and managing producer and costume designer for The Finest Performance Troupes. “That’s how it all really got started.”
Now retired, Rawlins was supervising community recreation programs with the City of Rockville when the foundation began. She continued with The Finest Performance Foundation as it evolved from a City of Rockville after-school program to a separate entity with its own board of directors, advisory board, staff and programs. Kashi-Tara started with the organization as a teenager, before going on to a professional performing arts career, as did Edward “Songbird” Byrd, a professional R&B singer and recording artist who plays Marvin Gaye in “Heard it Through the Grapevine.”
“Performing with The Finest really created a family atmosphere,” said Byrd. “It was special. Some people did come from, maybe, a dysfunctional home, or they didn’t have certain things.”
That family environment, he added, enriched all the participants with a dynamic arts experience, encouraging leadership and offering opportunities to learn and grow.
“It not only helped me in the arts, it helped me in school,” said Byrd. “It helped me with my confidence.” Participating in the programs of The Finest Performance Foundation shows kids “they can be more, they can go after more, and they can create and be artists — and be professional, accepting and comfortable.”
In some ways, that family environment echoes Kashi-Tara’s vision of the Motown that Berry Gordy built. “It’s a community, a family that was created and became special to a lot of people,” she explained. “When he sold it, there was a mindset of ‘Oh, he’s a sellout.’ Or, ‘He’s not representing the community.
“But I was thinking it had to be a really tough thing for him to do.”
So, she used that difficult moment as a jumping-off point, a way to showcase the artists and their stories using the “amazing vocalists” of The Finest. “That’s the angle of the show: It’s 1988, he has to make the decision tomorrow and he goes to visit Motown in Detroit.”
The flood of memories Kashi-Tara imagines overtaking Gordy offers a chance to showcase the classic hits of the Civil Rights Era and beyond in a celebration of the Motown legacy. “He starts interacting with these memories — when he first meets Martha Wells, when he first meets Mary Wilson. The stage is set as the inside of Motown, the actual recording facility, the sound booth.”
Within the studio, Kashi-Tara explained, was where Gordy’s relationships with the artists — some warm and smooth, some rocky and volatile—unfolded. “We just want to show all the different levels of family that it took to create the Motown machine that we all know and love,” she added. “We go through that journey.”
That journey features the very best of Motown — The Temptations, The Supremes, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell — and goes beyond the music to capture this key chapter in American cultural history.
“Everything is based on facts,” said Kashi-Tara. “We may embellish it to make it more theatrical, but we’re not saying anything that’s not true. Some of the dialogue is from the artists themselves.”
And the music, of course, is legendary. The performances feature a live band — keyboard, bass, guitar and drums — and use snippets of some songs as transition music while fully featuring others. The objective is to inspire the audience and provoke their Motown memories.
“We definitely dance in the aisles,” laughed Kashi-Tara. “One of the things that The Finest has always done, from day one, is immerse the audience. We use the whole audience as a character in the show.”
And the characters onstage are compelling, playing out their stories of triumph and tragedy through song: picture Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye duetting on “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
“The cool thing about Motown is that everybody knows those songs,” she said. “We touch on the fact that Motown was a family, with all the different valleys and mountains of relationships, as well as being one of the greatest record companies ever known.”
The Finest Performance Foundation, Inc. presents “Heard It Through the Grapevine – Motown Moments Tribute” at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. The show opens at 8 p.m. Friday, July 13, with performances Thursday through Sunday from opening night through the Sunday, July 22 closing matinee. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22, $18 for students, ages 15 to 21 and $12 for youth ages 14 and younger. Call 301-258-6394 or visit www.artsonthegreen.ticketfly.com.