On Broadway and in musical theater lore, there are plenty of shows that have chronicled, examined and celebrated the lives and careers of show business personalities across genres. We have two of them in town now. At Signature Theatre, we have “Jelly’s Last Jam,” with Mark Meadows embodying Jelly Roll Morton.
At Arena Stage, however, you’ll find a show that’s an original—in terms of its protagonists and subject, in terms of the emotions it evokes, in terms of the setting and in terms of the way it manages in the end to be a celebration not just of music but of family. That’s a celebration everyone can join.
That would be “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” a musical bio chronicling the rise to fame of six-time Grammy Award-winning gospel and pop icon BeBe Winans and his sister CeCe Winans, and a story that is, to say the least, unusual. The show — which has smart, patient direction from Charles Randolph Wright (“Motown, the Musical”) — chronicles the rise of the Winans siblings, who were the seventh and eighth of ten children, raised by Delores and David Winans, otherwise known as Pop and Mom Winans in the show.
BeBe was encouraged to write his own story, and that of his sister, a story that in the end becomes primarily a story of family. BeBe wrote the book and 32 songs which rush at the audience almost without let-up.
After being introduced to the audience as a family, the story of the Winans takes an unexpected turn when BeBe and CeCe are sent from Detroit to Pineville, South Carolina, where the two audition for a spot on the Praise the Lord television by the already famous Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, a white, southern couple in full evangelical mode. It’s an odd pairing for the siblings and not without its racial difficulties, but it is through PTL and the Baker’s that the pair slowly rise to fame.
This feels almost like a classic show biz bio. Several things raise it up, make it an embracing, moving and thrilling experience, for everybody, particularly the energy and emotions of the songs that move from heartfelt ballads, rise-up inspiration anthems to rousing participatory numbers.
Equally important are the performers, who fully embody their parts. It doesn’t hurt to have Juan Winans and Deborah Joy Winans, the nephew and niece of BeBe Winans, starring as BeBe and CeCe, making it a true family affair, and somehow, adding a dollop of intimacy to the proceedings. Chaz Pofal as Jim Bakker and Kirsten Wyatt as the inimitable Tammy Faye, add performances that seem to run on perpetual jolts of offbeat energy, and even at their most egregious racial cluelessness, never quite lose the audience’s sympathy. Kiandra Richardson, it should be noted, adds true sparkle as a young Whitney Houston.
One of the things that’s important about this show is its deep connection to the audience. It’s hard to imagine this production existing in solitude. The audience acts as a kind of congregation — which, by all accounts and by my own experience, it often becomes. There’s a buildup of energy that’s infectious throughout, as call and respond ripples through various parts of the audience.
Steadying the proceedings throughout are Milton Craig Nealy and Nita Whitaker as pop and mom Winans. Nealy has a stern, magnetic presence and voice, while Whitaker is the loving voice of reason, she exudes an abundance of warmth and delivers a rousing, moving rendition of “Seventh Son.”
Whitaker is at home in Broadway musicals like “Ragtime” and toured internationally with Andrea Bocelli. She is a versatile singer and performer — and also an award-winning author and CEO of a non-profit that presents books and reading fundamentals to children.
She talked with The Georgetowner about her role as Mama Winans and what it and its music meant to her.
What made you decide to do this play and role?
I was invited to be a part of a reading in Boston by both BeBe and our director Charles Randolph-Wright in 2014. When asked to come along for the run in Atlanta and Alliance, I was most excited to create this role and to make her as real and as much like the amazing Mother Winans that I get to portray. BeBe gave me a lot of insight, and I did some research on my own. I feel quite honored to try to step into her shoes eight times a week. I think she is a powerful real woman, and I am always attracted to those kinds of characters on stage and in real life.
What is the importance of Mom Winans in the Winans family and how do you think that is represented in the play?
I think that Mom Winans, Delores, is the heart of the show and of the family. She is the glue and the founding as part of the team parenting with Pop Winans. She has a unique relationship with each of her children because as a parent, your job is to meet each child where they are and for who they are. She’s done that pretty well with her brood of ten.
How would you describe her?
I would describe Delores Winans as a grounded Christian woman, with great resilience, heart and an indomitable spirit, whose family and faith are the center of her universe.
I was in an audience which was perhaps 90-percent African American, and a large majority of that number were women. Is this typical for the show, both here and in Atlanta, and what does it say about the show?
We have had large, wonderful audiences from churches and we’ve also had more mixed theater goers coming to see our show. As our cast is multicultural, let me be clear: this is not just a black show that appeals only to black audiences. It can’t be categorized by that because it has so many universal themes that appeal to the masses.
Certainly because BeBe’s name is attached and those church groups and goers who are fans, know their music, and/or love the Winans family, so love the show. We saw that in both Atlanta and here. But we’ve also had audience of mixed races who didn’t know the music or any background on the Winans family who had equally enjoyable experiences, perhaps less verbal, because they were listening and learning.
I believe the show’s appeal can reach both because of the themes of finding your purpose and trusting it, faith and family.
What is the importance of Gospel music to American music?
Though the Winans family brought gospel music to a larger stage than just churches, BeBe and CeCe’s music crossed over to pop and reached millions of listeners. At its root, Gospel music sings of hope, inspiration, redemption, tells biblical stories and is the root of both country and jazz genre music. Gospel music gathers people, soothes and uplifts. It’s a sacred, beautiful art form and many great singers have sprung from its well.