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Music and History Take Center Stage in Ain't Too Proud

The Kennedy Center demonstrates the unending appeal of the Temptations.

The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre's production of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, making its East Coast premiere at the Kennedy Center.
(© Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

To many people, the Temptations are as alive today as they were when they entertained us in the 1960s and 1970s, providing the world's stages, radios, record players, and television screens with extraordinary, unforgettable music. A product of Motown, the Temptations were known for their clear harmonies, smooth choreography, and snazzy outfits. Although the group rotated in new members through the years as individual singers left, the core of their popularity never changed. Now, the Kennedy Center is telling the story of the Temptations in a stunning pre-Broadway musical premiere called Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.

Written by Dominique Morisseau with music and lyrics from the Motown catalog, Ain't Too Proud is an adaptation of Otis Williams's book Temptations. It begins in Detroit, where a young Williams (Derrick Baskin) was staying one step ahead of the law until he was thrown into a juvenile detention center for six months. When he got out, he happened to see his favorite group, the Cadillacs, and decided to dedicate his life to a "higher calling" like theirs. He gathered singers to join him including Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), Al Bryant (Jarvis Manning Jr.), Paul Williams (James Harkness), and Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope). Eventually, the powerful record producer Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) saw their act and took them on.

Keeping the Temptations together was not easy. The men fought about who the group's leader was until Williams insisted that there would not be a leader. He disagreed with Gordy, who wanted Williams to only sing songs written by other people. As group members came and went, some were harder to deal with than others. One of the best singers of all time, David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), got increasingly involved with drugs, which eventually ended his career. Ain't Too Proud doesn't gloss over these facts. Rather, it integrates the group's highs and lows, showing their successes and failures.

Baskin is phenomenal as Otis Williams. As narrator, he moves the story along, outlining the ever-changing face of the Temptations, making their history sound alive and appropriately chaotic. Sykes is extraordinary as the brilliant but unreliable Ruffin, who was the Temptations' lead singer for many years. Jackson's bass sounds exactly like the rich, volcano-deep voice of Melvin Franklin. Manning and Harkness round out the original quintet with graceful movements and luscious harmonies. Candice Marie Woods is a startlingly convincing Diana Ross, and Rashidra Scott is moving as Otis's wife, singing her distress at him being constantly on the road instead of at home with his family.

Director Des McAnuff keeps the production moving quickly so it never gets bogged down in details about who is in and who is out. He is helped enormously by choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who successfully delineates the evolution of the Temptations, from the smooth and contained hand gestures of the 1960s to the bigger, more aggressive gestures of the 1970s. Under Kenny Seymour's music supervision, the tunes come on gently and then grow harsher and more strident as the story reveals riots in Detroit, anti-war protests, racism, and the death of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Costume designer Paul Tazewell's outfits mirror the evolution of the group and the decades; they are delightful reminders of the elegance that informed the Temptations.

Morisseau has fortunately created neither a documentary nor a puff piece. Her script is a clean, unvarnished look at a group of men who produced an astonishing sound and a unique look, men who knew how to sing powerfully about love. Ain't Too Proud is the ultimate tribute to the spirit of the Temptations and their dedication to the craft that united them.

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