Grammy winner BeBe Winans’ uplifting musical makes ’80s televangelism feel inspiring again
By Bliss Bowen
After years of being teased that he should turn his remarkable life story into a script, six-time Grammy Award winner BeBe Winans finally did, in collaboration with director Charles Randolph-Wright. “Born for This: The Musical,” contains the inspirational uplift that is Winans’ musical trademark along with some unexpected moments.
Following runs in Atlanta and Washington D.C., “Born for This” began previews last week at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The play charts Winans’ path from Detroit, where he grew up the seventh of 10 children in a gospel music family, to North Carolina, where he and sister CeCe first achieved fame in the mid-1980s performing on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s TV show “The PTL Club,” and their subsequent rise as inspirational gospel and R&B artists with million-selling albums and multiple Grammy and Dove Awards to their credit. Nephew Juan Winans, a Grammy-nominated artist and producer, portrays BeBe; niece Deborah Joy Winans, an actress on cable TV’s “Greenleaf,” plays CeCe.
Not surprisingly, the younger Winans’ warm sibling blend during stirring numbers like “Up Where We Belong” echoes their aunt and uncle’s harmonies. Doing the show has deepened their understanding of how their celebrated family’s music has touched people.
“Absolutely, no question about it,” Deborah Joy says. “Because when you’re just sort of surrounded by it, you don’t realize how it has impacted the world. Running into people who are like, ‘You’re a Winan? Oh, man, the song ‘Tomorrow’ changed my life.’ Just to hear how it has affected so many people in such a deep, deep way has been incredible.”
“They all have a different perspective on the Winans legacy in music and what they’ve contributed and what it means to them,” Juan observes. “Only God can do that. Only God can take a poor family from Detroit, Michigan, who had no real business being in this position, and say, ‘This is my purpose for you, this is my gift for you, now go and give it to others.’ So it’s inspiring, and there’s a sense of responsibility — like, let’s be people of integrity. Let’s be people of honor.”
“Up Where We Belong,” presented in a slightly more theatrical arrangement, is one of the few songs from BeBe and CeCe’s catalogue. Winans composed music to advance the show’s storyline — what Randolph-Wright calls “the whole journey of the BeBe character” as he grapples with faith and fame. How BeBe and CeCe held onto their family’s values while navigating the worlds of gospel, R&B and televangelism is a rich question, particularly considering the cynicism sparked by Bakker’s prosperity theology and later incarceration. But Randolph-Wright says the show deals not with “specific scandals” but instead with the contrast between the world’s view of the Bakkers (portrayed by Chaz Pofahl and Kirsten Wyatt) and the Winans’ view.
“It was a huge deal that these two black teenagers were on this religious television show. That had never happened before,” Randolph-Wright says. “I mean, Billy Graham would have someone black singing in the corner, but God forbid he would hug them, talk to them, kiss them on air, which is what Tammy did. Those two loved [BeBe and CeCe] like they were their children.
“I wrote a scene about all the death threats [made] when they first appear on ‘PTL,’” Randolph-Wright continues. “BeBe said, ‘That didn’t happen!’ A couple months later, he saw Jim Bakker and said, ‘Charles is taking liberties, writing about all these threats.’ And Jim said, ‘Oh, my God, there were so many threats.’ BeBe was in his fifties [and never knew]. Because the Bakkers protected them — that’s the story. Despite what they did and who they are, their love overcame everything for these two people.”
Whitney Houston (portrayed by Kiandra Richardson) is another featured character, as is BeBe and CeCe’s redoubtable mother. As Mom Winans, Nita Whitaker’s showstopping delivery of the Broadway-style ballad “Seventh Son” not only illuminates her son’s drive to make something of himself, it also reveals the family’s bedrock convictions and her fears for her child’s wellbeing. A native Louisianan who grew up singing in church and worked with producer David Foster for 20-plus years singing demos for Houston, Celine Dion and Toni Braxton, Whitaker maximizes her brief vignettes onstage by trying to show the family anchor’s consistency and humanity.
“She had to have had a great deal of discipline in herself to get everybody out of the house in the morning, but then also a great sense of comedy because to raise 10 kids … ” Whitaker trails off, laughing. “I’m a mom, so I really get the mom sensibility and that song to me is a prayer, so I try to deliver it every night like that. I pray for all of our children.”
“I love that we’re telling this story right now, because we’re so separated,” Randolph-Wright says, referencing America’s current cultural and political divisions. “People from both sides of the aisle or wherever they are don’t communicate, at all. We’re shut down. I’ve never seen it so horrible as we are right now. It’s so depressing to people in the AARP group, because we fought to change all this in the ’60s, and it’s worse than I remember. But people who see this, when they come out of the theater, their reactions make me know what art does, how it can heal, what it means. And it gives people permission to love instead of permission to hate.”
“Born for This: The Musical” runs through Aug. 6 at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets start at $50. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org.