I have had the good fortune to have seen many a Broadway play (also quite a few off-Broadway, for that matter). But only a very few over the years have stayed with me—a short list would include Fela! The Mountaintop. Choir Boy. The House That Will Not Stand. Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar.
The new Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Life and Times of the Temptations will easily make the list—and by the way, I pretty much hate musicals. I do, however, love music and a good story, and this has reams of both.
Even if it weren’t written by Dominique Morisseau, the brilliant hand behind Detroit 67, The Skeleton Key and Paradise Blue, the story of the mighty, mighty Temptations—the most successful R&B group of all time—would be stellar. The story is told from the perspective of Otis Williams, original Temptation and founder of the group, looking back on his extraordinary American life; a man who truly lived by the mantra “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
It all began in Detroit, aka Motown, starting with Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin, Memphis); Melvin “Blue” Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson, Motown); Eddie “Corn” Kendricks (Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy); Paul Williams (James Harkness, Beautiful); and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes, Hamilton). It is the first play, certainly the first musical, where I want to know how something this amazing came together. How’d they put it on? How’d they cast the players? Who are these people? Sure, we know about Berry Gordy (amazingly portrayed by Jahi Kearse), but who is this Norman Whitfield (superbly done by Jarvis B. Manning Jr.)? Look, I need the recipe, at least a BTS or something, a la Beyonce’s Homecoming.
Being a black woman in this bifurcated world, I so appreciate that this work of art hit me on multiple levels—this had music, dance, tea, history, and not only music history but black history, which is American history. In a country that is wont to erase us and our place in culture, it is imperative that we hold onto to our truth, which is that we gave a nation song. Motown and the Temptations’ music was a collision of the field hollers of Alabama and the slick talk of the D; of mirth and pain unspeakable. Of black gypsies running from lynchings, migrating to other places—never utopia, but smack dab into the hard steel of razor blades, assembly lines and microphones.
The singing was sublime; the dancing was galactic. When the cast performed “Papa was a Rolling Stone” with its syncopated stomps, you could see a clear line drawn not only from the cotton fields of Texarkana to Black Greeks at HBCUs but to the heart of Mother Africa, which never left our bones. That movement has remained in us.
Though this was a “jukebox” musical, there were also some very poignant, pregnant, funereal moments, including the historic line uttered by Paul Williams: “They done killed Rev. King.” This story was not only about the evolution of the Temptations, but of a nation; one wrenched in segregation, violence, and a promise of liberty yet fulfilled. Even within the joy of song and dance, it evoked very tangible, very universal emotions of remorse, regret and growth.
These boys (and gals) were nothing short of sweet perfection. The pace worked, aided by a moving stage that seamlessly shifted from scene to scene. The same painstaking work that made Motown the juggernaut it was seemed to go into this production. The music was commanding, lifting, and pure.
I’m sure it evokes nostalgia for those who first heard the Temptations’ biggest hits on a car radio or grinding in the corner of a house party with the lights out, and I was thrilled to take my mother and two aunts to the show (this is definitely something the entire family can enjoy).
And unlike some clueless reviewers who had the audacity to write that The Temptations didn’t dance the way the players who portrayed them did (that fact-checker should be checked—but then again, why would we expect others to know about us?), the play also made me think a lot about perspective—who tells the story, how the story is told, and who it’s being told to. Those who believe in the power of cultural shifts know that this music helped to integrate a country.
And these pros are not just singing, not just dancing, but singing in five-part harmony and dancing in synchronized perfection. If you don’t love musicals, but love concerts, this is for you.
Of course, the play showcased the talents of the indomitable David Ruffin, my favorite Temp by far. Of his character, Otis said, “It seemed that he was always in a war, even when he sang about love.”
Played majestically by Ephraim Sykes (who should be in line for a Tony Award), Ruffin was the “diamond in the Ruffin” that the Temptations began with; a man with a voice of whiskey and worn leather, burlap and molasses, who would jump up into a split and catch a mic twirled behind his back. Yes, he, like so many other black men, had demons—his magnified by fame, fortune and secrets exposed. In one scene, Ruffin, who labeled himself “the steering wheel of this group!” Missed a show at the Copacabana because he was over in New Jersey “sleeping with Dean Martin’s daughter.”
David Ruffin was ousted from the Temptations shortly thereafter, and the play effectively used music to tell the story as it unfolded. “War” (a hit for Edwin Starr) was appropriately a backdrop to the social turmoil around the Vietnam War. When against Berry Gordy’s wishes, the group wanted to get more political, they recorded “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today), after Eddie Kendricks poignantly asked, “When are they going to cross over to us???” “I’m Losing You” was the prelude to Ruffin’s departure and replacement by an equally able Dennis Edwards (Saint Aubyn put his foot into that one). And after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the song was, “I Wish It Would Rain.”
Then there were the hits spread throughout: “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” by Eddie Kendrick and Diana Ross; “I Can’t Get Next To You;” “The Way You Do The Things You Do;” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me);” “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted;” and of course, the titular piece, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
I could go to see this show Every. Single. Week.
After this rousing, amazing, spectacular show, you’re quite clear on why the Temptations—in all of their incarnations—were the top-selling group of Motown (yes, even over the Supremes) and the top-selling R&B group of all time. This is our story, this is our song, and we would be fools to forget it.
Plus, it is so much fun remembering.