For better or (probably for) worse, The Real Housewives of (enter location here) reality TV show franchise is an American institution that has infiltrated mainstream society. The show documents the incredibly intimate details of the partners and mostly stay-at-home wives of prominent public figures. Peeling back the layers of the housewives’ professional and personal lives has been accomplished time and again, much to our entertainment. Wildly popular, this style of documentation can sometimes be raw, shocking, and painful to watch, and even when the cameras stop rolling, the issues, triumphs, and tragedies of the Housewives live on, regardless of whether we’re still watching, or even care.
The Real Housewives of Motown, writer and director Michelle Reneé Bester’s new show premiering at Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater, transports us to Motown’s dominant era, when singers like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were the celebrities/sex symbols of the day. As Bester stated before and after the show, behind every strong man is an even stronger woman, dealing with more than you could ever imagine.
The Real Housewives of Motown
Through 7/9: Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark, 773-769-4451, blackensembletheater.org, $56.50-$66.50
Picture this: you’re a doting wife, married to a successful, lusted-over soul singer, a man who spends most of his time recording hits in a studio, and when he’s not in the studio, he’s off touring the world. Bester’s raucous production gives a voice to the wives of some of the most noted singers on Berry Gordy’s hitmaking record label, Motown Records. Gordy’s character is stylishly played by Louisiana native Dennis Dent. However, it’s the wives who give this production its depth.
While Bester asked for grace to be given to preview audiences, there wasn’t much need for it. The show rolled smoothly and the actors accomplished engaging performances. The beautiful, in-the-round set mimics vinyl records, with life-size, vintage TV replicas placed upstage, serving a dual purpose. Part of the Real Housewives television format is a private confessional space, where the women are able to speak even more candidly about the events in their lives. The TV replicas on the set of TRHOM serve as “confessional” pieces throughout, playing prerecorded segments that reveal the wives’ most private thoughts. Besides the actual music, this is a really smart way to continue the story, make a thematic connection with the TV show, and expose more vulnerability through character monologue.
As an entertainment mogul, Gordy was relentless, encouraging artists on his label to put music first. At Motown, perfection was the ultimate aim. Record sales and ticket stubs were (and still are) the lifeblood of a successful music career. TRHOM highlights the stories of four wives of some of the biggest singers of the era, who were often put on the back burner to the art. Through speech, song, and dance, the lively ensemble brings these often unheard stories to life.
Josephine Williams, played by Melanie McCullough, was the wife of Otis Williams, the last surviving original member of The Temptations. She dealt with raising kids without their father, infidelity, and more throughout their marriage.
Sidenote: Otis Williams was later engaged to famed singer Patti LaBelle, who actually admitted on Oprah’s OWN network that she was probably more in love with The Temptations than Otis, and was really enamored with his celebrity. LaBelle also revealed she didn’t go through with the engagement because Otis asked her to quit music to become a housewife. It’s interesting to note that even LaBelle was starstruck, so we can only imagine what Josephine Williams had to go through regarding infidelity.
Mary Agnes Williams, expertly played by De’Jah Perkins, was the wife of the late Paul Williams, who was stamped as being the original lead singer of The Temptations. In one scene, Mary Agnes mentions Paul dealing with alcoholism and being verbally abusive, yet being left to deal with it on her own.
It is a miserable fact that peers, wives, and husbands largely mind “their own business” despite whispers of abuse in their social circles; this mirrors some of the same problems facing the music industry today. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of celebrity—close friends, family, and society at large turning a blind eye to a spouse quietly suffering as a result of their famous partner’s actions. One of the more poignant moments of the show comes from Mary Agnes, who exclaims “music is misery” for a wife whose husband is always touring, and sometimes spending the money meant for the family’s survival.
Clineice Stubbs, wife of Four Tops lead vocalist Levi Stubbs, is played by Qiana McNary in her Black Ensemble Theater debut. With a beautiful singing voice, she portrays Stubbs as a devoted ride-or-die. The two were married until Levi’s death in 2008; many of their struggles during the Motown era had to do with physical safety and protection when touring the southern United States. The show briefly touches on the race relations of the day—not trusting police on the road, the risk of performing in the Civil-Rights-era south, and how most white folks mistreated Blacks even when they were celebrities. Within the Stubbs’ story, the audience learned not only of internal factors but the external struggles of these strained units.
Smokey Robinson is a household Motown name and the founder/frontman for soul group the Miracles. He was married to Claudette Rogers Robinson, played by Chicago native Britt Edwards. Claudette was also a member of The Miracles, and for most of the time frame shown in the production, was childless. This was a point of contention between some of the wives. But it’s later revealed that Claudette endured over a half dozen miscarriages while married to Smokey, yet would always work through the physical and mental anguish.
In one particularly intense scene, Smokey and Claudette discuss her health and quickly break into song, which gives a new depth to the classic track, “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” Bester places Motown hits between dialogue and confessionals in a very clever, engaging way.
With so much ground to cover thematically, the music of this production takes a definitive front seat and the characters are brought even more to life in the round, with many numbers allowing the actors to sing while roaming about the theater. The live band under the direction of Adam Sherrod is polished and adds to the authenticity of the production.
Another great highlight is a remarkable rendition of “My Guy” by Kendra Turner as Mary Wells, who has a short yet memorable scene where it’s clear how Claudette could have been jealous of her and opted to keep her husband far away. Smokey Robinson was rumored to have been quite busy with extramarital affairs (he recently admitted to being involved with Diana Ross during his marriage to Claudette), and eventually Claudette and Smokey split after 27 years of marriage. By the 1970s, Motown was fighting for relevance among the funk and disco desires of the day, and as time marched on, through divorce, death, or family demands, the Real Housewives of Motown grew apart.
However, their stories are just as important and cautionary as ever. The realities of being married to a celebrity sex symbol, or an icon who’s not financially savvy, or just a plain old successful touring beast who doesn’t come home to help parent are all too common for many people. The Real Housewives of Motown is a show that not only highlights voices that have too often been silenced by revisionist history, it celebrates what these women did behind the scenes to help shape the landscape of popular music. This is not lowbrow reality television; this production is a beautiful labor of love that sings the praises of some of our most unsung heroes: the WIVES.