Berry Gordy founded the Motown label in 1959. With just $800 borrowed from his family, he went from a featherweight boxer to heavyweight music mogul, discovering and launching the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and many more. Coming to New Theatre Oxford this Christmas, Motown the Musical uncovers the true story of the legendary record label that changed music history and created the soundtrack of a generation. The cast for the UK and Ireland tour includes Shak Gabbidon-Williams as Marvin Gaye. The morning after a show in Glasgow, he chats to us about uplifting music, racism in football and the beauty of Oxford, his hometown.
How did you end up with the role of Marvin Gaye?
I think the first audition was towards the end of my third year at drama school. In that time I’d ended up getting a job in Hairspray, and I think the audition process actually finished off just before the end of the Hairspray run. One job straight to the other.
And how have you approached this one?
It’s completely different to a show where you create a character from scratch. Your character exists in history, so there was a lot of reading, documentary-watching, and a lot of researching live performances. It’s probably the hardest challenge I’ve had as an actor, but definitely the most interesting.
Was it important for everyone involved in the show to not just create carbon copies of the characters?
When it started out, there was very much a feeling of, ‘ok, we want you to do this, but actually give it a bit of yourself.’ Once we got to that comfortable position, it became more like, ‘now we want you to become these people, because people are coming to see them, as opposed to a reflection.’ We had [executive producer] Michael Lovesmith, who worked with all these people personally – Marvin, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder – so he really moulded us into these characters. Unlike a lot of Motown concerts, this is probably the closest you’re going to get to actually seeing these people onstage without going to one of their shows. It’s very authentic.
You’re also a football fan – did you ever consider a career as a player instead of a performer?
If I did, it would probably have been back when I was ten. Football was my dad’s sport, he was quite well known around Oxford for being good at football, so I think there were a lot of people thinking I was going to go in the same direction as him. But I did my own thing. Performing has always been in my blood.
It’s a great game rather tarnished by ugly racism at times – do you get angry about that?
I wish I did get angry, but nothing surprises me anymore in terms of racism, particularly in football. We have it in the UK but it seems to be so much worse in places like Italy and Turkey. We’re getting a new story about it nearly every week; a player walking off the pitch or kicking the ball into the fans as a reaction to racial abuse. It’s a massive shame and it’s not acceptable anywhere. It really does ruin the game.
Are you an Oxford United fan, being from the city?
This is probably going to get me into a bit of trouble… but I never massively followed them. My cousins all live near the Kassam so I’ve seen a few games; I have a cousin and friends who played for Oxford United at youth level, so I do have a lot of love for it. It just wasn’t my team. I’m cursed as an Arsenal fan instead.
What do you miss about Oxford when you’re away?
It’s got such a good vibe. I love going to Christ Church and University Parks in the summer, and just really being able to relax – you can just escape and have your own time. It’s one of the most beautiful cities. As somebody who grew up there and saw all these things every day, every time I come back it’s great to see my city and how gorgeous it is.
You’ll be returning shortly with Motown – how do you think an Oxford audience will receive it?
Hopefully like a lot of audiences have across the country. This show has the potential to bring the party feeling out of you. You can’t really watch Motown without feeling a bit uplifted by the songs – you want to sing and dance along.
So you’ll be home for Christmas, what will you do when you’re not performing?
I’ll probably spend most of my days off trying to catch up with family and friends I haven’t seen in ages. I’ve been away for over a year, and when I finish the tour I’m actually moving to London, so it’ll be a nice time to get back to everyone – my cousin’s getting married next year so I’ll be trying to get back onboard with all that because I’m meant to be groomsman.
As someone in the public eye, do you have to consider what you’re putting out on social media?
It’s really important. You can do one show and end up having more followers; young boys and girls will look up to you, want to send you messages, ask you questions about the show and how you got into the industry. I do find myself being very conscious of what I post. Even if it’s not a massive thing to me, you don’t know how saying one thing could impact someone else, so I do take care.
Do people ever ask you things you don’t feel qualified to answer?
If I’m asked a question, it’s usually someone who wants to get into drama school, asking me how I did it, so it’s not too bad. I’ve had questions about Marvin Gaye that I’ve had no clue about – quite personal things about him. People like to remind me about his untimely death, how he died, that’s been the only morbid thing about doing this show.
What does next year hold for Shak Gabbidon-Williams?
I’m looking forward to more opportunities, and being able to experiment with who I am as a performer and where I want to take my career in terms of music and straight acting. The year’s open so I’m looking forward to the adventure.