It almost didn’t happen. Audiences who experienced Sheldon Rhoden’s unforgettable portrayal of Marvin Gaye in two previous Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe productions about the life and music of the late soul singer would be astonished to learn that it took a lot of coaxing to get him to consider acting.
Looking back on a decade of performing with WBTT in shows such as Dynamic Duets of the ‘70s, The Magnificent Mills Brothers and Soul Man, Rhoden recalls his initial reluctance. “I wasn’t brought up in the theater,” he says. “I had no desire to act in plays; I just wanted to sing. But the very thing I denied has taken my career to heights I couldn’t imagine.”
In addition to gracing the stage in several shows at WBTT, Rhoden has appeared as one-fifth of WBTT’s popular group The Soul Crooners twice at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina, and by invitation in Germany, touring as a gospel singer and producing his own recordings, such as his 2014 EP, From Boy to Man. One of the highlights of his career was singing Gaye’s “What’s Going On” for none other than Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. The performance, at an audition for Motown: The Musical, brought tears to Gordy’s eyes.
This season at WBTT, Rhoden will “channel” Marvin Gaye once again (a word often used to describe his transformation into the musical icon) when the Troupe stages its third production about the groundbreaking singer-songwriter, Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul, created and adapted by WBTT founder/artistic director Nate Jacobs, November 28, 2018, to January 13, 2019.
“I knew we had to include this show in what we’re calling our ‘command season,’” says Jacobs. “It’s one of the most popular and requested shows we’ve ever presented, and that’s due to Sheldon. He’s incredibly gifted but humble at the same time — a wonderful artist and person.”
Jacobs recalls trying to convince Rhoden, a reluctant young church singer, to perform in a production he was staging in 2008. “People who knew him from the community told me he had a great voice,” Jacobs remembers. “But when I asked him to audition for a show, he just wasn’t interested.”
Others who knew Rhoden — including his mother — tried to intercede, with no luck. Then one day, when Jacobs was casting Dynamic Duets of the ‘70s and was short a male singer, someone suggested calling Rhoden one more time.
“I did, and this time he showed up at our door,” says Jacobs. “Luckily for us and our audience, he was here to stay.”
After Dynamic Duets, Rhoden sang and acted in Motown ‘60s Revue. Jacobs gave him two Marvin Gaye songs to sing. The effect was amazing. “He turned the audience on its ear,” Jacobs says. Soon after, inspiration struck. Why not create a play about Gaye, with Rhoden in the title role?
“When I told Sheldon the idea, he turned into an excited 5-year-old boy,” Jacobs recounts. “He’s a pretty laid-back dude, but he couldn’t hide his enthusiasm.”
Jacobs says Rhoden was — and is — “focused, mature and intelligent.” But he notes that as a developing artist, Rhoden had a lot of room for growth. An early review of that first Marvin Gaye show noted that he sounded incredible singing the songs, but lacked Gaye’s swagger and sexuality.
“He used that critique to polish his performance, and the next reviews reflected that turnaround,” says Jacobs. “The audience noticed, too — especially the women!”
Rhoden will bring that confidence to the WBTT stage when he plays Marvin Gaye again this season. The production has the full blessing of Gaye’s second wife, Janis, who shared some insights about Marvin with Rhoden that he’ll bring to the role.
To celebrate Rhoden’s 10th year with WBTT, the Troupe is basing its annual fundraising gala on his anniversary and the Marvin Gaye show. Let’s Get it On will be held at Sarasota Municipal Auditorium Friday, Nov. 16, at 6 p.m. The event will include cocktails, dinner catered by Michael’s On East, and dancing to the hits of the ‘70s. Patrons have been snapping up tickets to the gala so they can “boogie down” and support the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe as it prepares to renovate and expand its theatre this summer — just in time for the Troupe’s 20th season in 2019-2020.
Click here to watch a 30-second clip of Rhoden and Jai Shanae singing “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” from the 2014 staging of Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul