The powerful and moving travails of The Temptations and their extraordinary journey from the tough streets of Detroit to seeing their dreams of stardom come true continues now through July 22 at the District’s Kennedy Center in the pre-Broadway engagement of “Ain’t Too Proud.”
And if the signature moves and intricate harmonies of the legendary Motown quintet make you jump to your feet, lift your imaginary microphone or take you back in time to the delightful days of your youth, then this is one play you do not want to miss.
The production features a score replete with the Temptations’ cavalcade of chart-busting, award-winning songs including “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” “I Wish it Would Rain” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
Based on a book by Kennedy Prize-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau, the music of the Temptations has been intricately woven with a fresh retelling of the story behind their friendship along with the challenges and tempting roads they faced and to which some members succumbed as the group’s star continued to rise.
Morisseau said she considers herself fortunate because of the willingness of Otis Williams, the sole surviving original member of the group (superbly performed by Derrick Baskin), who “let down his guard and shared new insights” as she developed her book.
“This couldn’t be done in any other medium due to the demands of the theater and so the songs are allowed to take on a special meaning that makes this such an amazing production,” said Morisseau, a Detroit native who said she recalls her childhood during which the music of the Temptations remained ever present and celebrated.
“Many Detroiters had personal relationships with members of the Temptations and I’ve captured some of those encounters in other plays I’ve written and taken to the stage,” she said. “But those who know the real deal, the real stories, are adamant about making sure I tell the truth — that I’m fair — so, you could call what I have experienced as a playwright with Detroit as a major backdrop, to be both a gift and a curse.”
She notes that while previous works have tended to focus on the many Motown performers who achieved success under Berry Gordy’s careful tutelage, “Ain’t Too Proud” focuses solely on those members of the Temptations, Williams, Paul Williams (James Harkness), Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope), David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) and Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning Jr. who laid the foundation for the group and paved the way for their successors).
“This play deals with their brotherhood, how they each handled life as celebrities, but it also brings to light the escalating civil unrest that was occurring while the group was becoming more successful and the that impacted their lives and career,” she said. “We cover a lot of ground in the play, particularly giving attention to David Ruffin because of his significant contributions to their sound — David both with and then without the Temptations.”
Seeing the production, this writer could not help but be impressed by the stellar performance of Baskin who takes charge of the stage in his role as Otis Williams. Williams, who attended the premiere of the show on Thursday, June 28, seemed to be more than pleased with the young actor’s efforts.
Harkness, in his portrayal of Paul Williams, whose life ended tragically with suicide, shares an emotionally moving foretaste of his demise while singing “For Once in My Life.” And native Detroiter Jawan M. Jackson, the bass/baritone voice that seeks to reach the vocal basement made famous by Melvin Franklin, brings a down-home quality to the stage that will endure the audience to him.
D.C. Radio Icon Donnie Simpson Reflects on Temps
After the play, Donnie Simpson, a fixture on the District’s radio waves for more than 40 years, and the only non-musician inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame, joined by his wife, Pam, spoke with WI contributing writer Brenda Siler about his longtime friends the Temptations, also sharing his thoughts about the play. Both Simpsons hail from Detroit.
Washington Informer: What did you think of this production?
Donnie Simpson: I thought it was fantastic. I was having a ball before it started; just looking at the Fox Theatre staging brought back so many memories. When Pam and I were kids, we lived through the Motown Review at the Fox. I first saw the Temptations when I was 10 years old.
WI: What about the choreography?
DS: The choreography was amazing; it was great. The music, the singing, the story . . . I knew most of it, but I learned some new stuff tonight.
WI: You have known all the members of the Temptations and Otis Williams, the only living member from the group’s formative years, attended tonight’s performance. What has he said about the play?
DS: [Williams] told me about a year and a half ago how great it was so I am glad to finally see it. I know he is very proud of it and I am, too. It captures all those personalities I knew, especially David, the “Bobby Brown” of his time. When you have all those group dynamics, it’s hard.
WI: What would you say to someone who has not seen this production?
DS: Don’t miss it. It’s got a lot to it. It is not just singing and dancing. It is an emotional experience as well. It is something you should see.
Pam Simpson: Everyone needs to see it.
For tickets, go www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.