No one can ever say that Motown Records does not continue to inspire the youth of today’s generation. The label may have been founded over 50 years ago, but it is still alive and well in the hearts and minds of many adolescents. If you need proof, then just look at the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, a group of young, aspiring artists who recreated the legendary story of Motown through the play, Now That I Can Dance: Motown 1962.
The Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts was filled to capacity Saturday night as the music and early days of Motown’s leading figures such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Contours, and Mary Wells were brought to life by metro Detroit teenagers, many of whose parents were only kids when this music was created. The main focus of the story was about The Marvelettes, a young female singing group whose 1961 smash hit, “Please Mr. Postman” was the first Motown record to reach #1 on the Billboard Pop Charts.
Many people may pride themselves on knowing the entire history of Motown and its music, but the story of the Marvelettes is one that has seemed to fade into the background along with many other unsung heroes involved with the label. But, that all changed for many in the audience after seeing the play. The group was signed to Motown before it became the hit making machine of the Midwest, or like they stated in the play during the “pre-Supreme and Temptation days.”
The original members of the group consisted of Gladys Horton, Wyanetta Cowart, Georgia Dobbins, Georgeanna Tillman, Wanda Young, and Katherine Anderson Schaffner, who served as an adviser on set and whose character was also the narrator of the play. (Schaffner was also present in the audience on Saturday as well)
These five teenagers from Inkster, Michigan wanted what many aspiring young singers hoped for at that time, a chance to audition for Berry Gordy and become a part of the Motown family. The strong, fiery voices of the Marvelettes, including lead singer Wanda Young, played by Morgan Hutson, lit up the stage as they sang their hits such as “Please Mr. postman”, “Too Many Fish in the Sea” “Beechwood 4‐5789” and the ever popular “Don’t Mess With Bill.” The entire cast were well-polished vocalists, especially, Samuel Greene, who played the young Marvin Gaye in the play, and whose rendition of Gaye’s pop hit “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” astonished the audience.
The characters also superbly showcased the family oriented vibe of the record label, and explored the daily encounters that took place at 2648 West Grand Boulevard street in Detroit. They ran down the musical rivalry between the Supremes and Marvellettes, the sneaky tactics by then 10 year Stevie Wonder, and gave special attention to the famous Motortown Revue tours, which introduced the world to the “Voices of Young America.”
Rick Sperling, the founder and CEO of Mosaic Youth Theatre, truly captured the essence of both Motown and one of its leading groups. Sperling stated that he was inspired to write the play after speaking with Robin Terry, the director of the Motown Museum, and granddaughter of Esther Gordy-Edwards, who founded the museum in 1985. Sperling was hesitant to write a play about Motown because Mosaic only told stories that related to its young demographic. But, after Terry informed him that Motown was created by young people, many of whom were in their teens when they started with the label, Sperling became more confidant about presenting a play about the label.
Now That I Can Dance originally debuted in 2005, and in celebration of the organization’s 20th anniversary, they brought the play back, and it ran May 11-20 at the DIA, giving people another chance to relive the days when Motown Records reigned in the Motor City.
As I watched the play, a woman sitting next to me whispered to her young granddaughter, “You’re going to be a star like them one day.” The young girl, who looked like she was only three of four years old, shyly nodded her head and asked “is it almost over.” She may not have known the significance of the play, but hopefully, if that young girl does go on to become a star, then she’ll be another young person who was inspired by the Motown sound.
To learn more about the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, visit their website