Motown had the opportunity of a lifetime – to really emphasize the extent that black culture and history has had an impact on contemporary music. They didn’t take it. That’s not to say that this celebration of Motown music didn’t showcase spectacular music from across the board, it just didn’t take it as far as it could have gone. This show still needs to appeal to the majority white theatergoers who will be the driving force of ticket sales. If Motown were to attempt to only draw in a new crowd, it wouldn’t have been as successful as it ended up being. These real world facts are reminiscent of the plot of the show – one where Berry Gordy (Julius Thomas III) is focused on money rather than the rich history that the artists bring to the table.
Motown has some very strong moments that aren’t just for show; MLK jr’s assassination; drawing attention to police brutality; calling out the all-white sales team for Motown records. Berry Gordy, Jr., the book writer, is capable of creating very powerful moments where the attention of the audience is brought back to the fact that race played a huge part of the music, and why it was so important that Motown was created and is so treasured. If these strengths were pushed a bit more, and moments of audience participation for the sake of it weren’t nearly as emphasized, the show could have been infinitely stronger.
This show being performed now is no accident. Students in elementary school are taught that racism was a very-bad-thing-that-is-all-done-now, but we learn as we grow older that it simply is not true. Institutionalized racism allows police officers to use their biases to shoot now and think later, it allows the KKK to exist, where if their skin was another color, they’d have been deemed a terrorist group years ago. Racism exists, it is rampant, and it needs to be challenged. The simple starting point of Motown can and hopefully will help people with prejudices understand that their popular music comes from black people with extremely rich history. We need shows like Motown in our theaters where we have predominantly white casts, employees, and audiences. Things like this challenge our pre-conceived notions and help us by giving us a nudge in the right direction.
To challenge your prejudices, learn about contemporary music history, and celebrate the greats, Motown is playing now through December 28th at the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Minneapolis.