Continuing the life and legacy of The Temptations, Ain't Too Proud incorporates impressively rich vocals with some engrossing choreography to depict the rocky but ultimately groundbreaking feats of the band. Now playing at Prince Edward Theatre, audiences of all generations can enjoy the music, while gaining knowledge on their historic rise to the top.
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Performing as three key women in the production, Evonnee Bentley-Holder takes on the roles of Tammi Terrell, Mama Rose and Florence Ballard, bringing their parts of the Motown story to life. Discussing what the show means to her, why it is so great for audiences to see, and what she has learned in the casting process, keep reading to hear Evonnee give a great insight into all this.
The Temptations have had a significant impact on the music industry - how does it feel to be a part of bringing their story to life on stage?
Firstly, it’s such a privilege to bring their stories to life, I don’t take it lightly that we’re doing a musical about real people who lived through real successes and real struggles. There’s such highs and lows in the musical and in their lives, so it’s a massive privilege and a little bit of pressure because you want to do it justice and honour these amazing people. They have made such a massive impact on how music has changed – we wouldn’t have RnB if it wasn’t for The Temptations and Motown and that era, which is so iconic.
What drew you to your role, and how did you prepare to take on the three important female figures in the production?
What drew me to the role was the music. The music is such a massive part of this musical. Ain’t Too Proud has so many gorgeous songs, there’s so many different hits – some of which I didn’t know were The Temptations, some I was familiar with, and then you get other hits from The Supremes and other artists. It’s a gorgeous melting pot of all these beautiful songs, so in that sense, it’s a joy to be part of this show and to hear this music every day.
In terms of preparation, I did a lot of researching online and tried to find documentaries to watch, particularly with Tammi Terrell, because she’s quite a well-known artist and there’s lots of information out there about her. I found out a lot more about her as an artist and how she herself was part of Motown and her relationship with Marvin Gaye. But also, outside of her music and her art she was a very intelligent lady – she put herself through school and was studying medicine at one point. She was so tenacious and knew what she wanted at such a young age. It’s tragic that she had a short life, but she managed to cram so much in that short time. It’s a massive testament to her.
As the show has proven popular, could you explain a bit about how the piece balances drama and music to create a blend that keeps audiences engaged?
I think what makes the show so engaging for audiences is how the music and the drama is seamless, and they work together. You can see all the members of The Temptations going through their own personals struggles, and the songs echoes that and push it to the forefront.
I think it’s also quite clever how the show has songs that are performative, like the opening of Act 2, where you watch the boys performing as if they are doing an arena tour. There are songs that make the audience feel like they are at a concert, versus songs that make you feel inside the person’s head or hearing their deepest thoughts. It’s a lovely balance because you get that showstopping feel.
What themes are explored in the piece, and why are these, alongside gaining knowledge of The Temptations, something to be watched?
Massive themes for Ain’t Too Proud are passion and finding your purpose in life, which is something everyone can relate to. Everyone has some kind of passion, drive or calling, and I think for Otis (who we follow throughout the whole musical) his calling and avenue for finding peace is music, which is a lovely thing to watch and become inspired by. The production also explores relationships and love, and the balance of your calling and passion versus your love and responsibilities – as I get older, the more I learn about life, it’s difficult to juggle the two. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch at times when you see Otis interact with his son who he doesn’t see very much because he’s on the road on tour, and how that relationship struggles. It’s something that can really hit a nerve with people.
How are you ensuring to authentically recreate the true stories in the show to represent your parts in a way that continues the legacy of the bands that appear?
Doing your research on the people I’m playing (Tammi Terrell, Florence Ballard and Mama Rose) and what’s going on at that time. If I take Florence for example, being part of The Supremes – they’re at the top of their game, they’re where The Temptations want to be at the top of the charts as one of the first black groups to break into mainstream music. And how would that have been for black women? Not taking my role lightly is important and knowing how massive an achievement that was and also how massive a pressure. We had a lot of chats about this with our director and associate director, really getting into what that would have been like and trying to truthfully replicate that.
It’s also important to approach things very sensitively, particularly with the relationship between Tammi and David Ruffin, that is unfortunately abusive, making sure I respectfully try to approach this the best I can and perform it and do it justice, as it could be something that triggers other people when they are watching.
What has been the most interesting thing you've learnt about The Temptations since being in the show?
I think it’s the sheer number of how many Temptations there have been. Having met the real-life Otis Williams and Shelley Berger was amazing, but the most interesting thing about them was how tenacious they were, because they weren’t an overnight success. They worked and went through so many rejections to get where they were before they became a big hit.
What has been your favourite memory performing Ain't Too Proud so far, and which songs featured resonate with you most?
One of my favourite memories performing with the show was at the BBC Big Night of Musicals. To look out at an arena of people, and have them singing the songs back, was overwhelmingly amazing! It’s a memory I won’t ever forget. Equally, every night at the end of our performance, the audience gets involved, and when the lights go up and you can see and engage with people, there’s something about it that hits me in the heart. Music truly brings people together. To be privileged and lucky enough to do this job, I’m so grateful for it.
Also, the first time we heard the band, joy filled my heart. The band are so incredible, the work they do and the sound they produce is mind blowing. There are so many wonderful songs in this show. I’d have to say, my favourite in terms of dynamic and a song that you can get your teeth into, is 'Losing You', the bass on that song is incredible it fills your body, and then Tosh’s vocals on top!
How does the production appeal across generations to keep sharing the lives of the Motown greats?
I think this show can act as a great introduction and education into Motown and 60s music. My younger brother came to watch the show, and he was captivated. This wouldn’t necessarily be his first choice of music, but he’s now pulled into it. It’s an infectious music style, and this production is a great way of showcasing that. People who already know the music are attracted to it and want to come because they love the songs, and people who don’t know, come along and are pleasantly surprised and are indoctrinated into the institution that is The Temptations.
What has been rewarding for you being part of this cast, and what message should audiences take away from the show?
I think having the opportunity to step out onstage every night and share the space with such amazing performers, honouring such amazing artists, is probably the most rewarding thing. I’m so unbelievably thankful to be a part of such a wonderful group of people, and to be sharing the lives and keeping The Temptations legacy going.
I think audiences should take away love, joy, and pure enjoyment for music and letting that influence them in whatever way to follow their passions like Otis and The Temptations did.
Huge thanks to Evonnee for such brilliant answers there - it is fascinating to hear in more depth about this remarkable show. You're a fantastic performer, and I hope you continue having the best time in Ain't Too Proud.
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Additional thanks to Daniel O'Carroll for coordinating this interview.