Sunday, October 21, 2012

Off Broadway: Mama, I Want to Sing: The Next Generation

L-R: Tyrone Flowers, Sandra Huff, Ahmaya Knoelle Higginsen, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Bettina Pennon, and the Gospel for Teens Choir in MAMA, I WANT TO SING: THE NEXT GENERATION.  Photo by Jasmin Williams.
Mama, I Want to Sing by Vy Higginsen and her husband, Ken Wydro, opened at the Heckscher Theatre in East Harlem in 1983 and went on to become the longest-running off Broadway black musical in American history.  It tells the story of Doris Winter, one of many African-African performers who got their starts in church choirs before going on to make their marks in the commercial world of popular music (think Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer and Patti LaBelle).  The role of Doris Winter is based largely on that of the real life Doris Troy, Ms Higginsen’s own sister: in the musical, Doris Winter emerges from the choir in her father’s church, performs during Amateur Night at the Apollo, and capitalizes on her Apollo performance (despite her mother’s initial objections) to achieve a successful musical career.  In reality, Doris Troy parlayed her own appearance at the Apollo into a successful singing career in London.

Then, in an example of life imitating art, the real Doris Troy eventually performed in Mama, I Want to Sing in the role of her own mother.

Life has now come full circle: the musical is currently being revived by the Mama Foundation for the Arts at the Dempsey Theater on West 127th Street in Harlem with the appropriate sub-title “The Next Generation” appended and the role of Donna Winter is being played by Ahmaya Knoelle Higginsen, the real life daughter of Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro.  Nor is this an example of opportunistic nepotism.  Far from it!  Ahmaya Higginson is absolutely terrific in the role of Donna Winter: she not only exhibits a vocal range that is truly extraordinary, but she acts brilliantly as well, providing a performance in which she gradually evolves from her childhood self as a shy, gawky adolescent to her adult self as a poised professional singer.

The other principal actors are similarly outstanding and have backgrounds that would seem to have uniquely qualified them and conditioned them for their roles.  Bettina Pennon, a Reverend’s daughter herself who has been singing since the age of four, plays the role of Mama Winter, Doris’ protective mother who is so reluctant to let her daughter go; she has an exceptional voice herself and plays her role with the sensitivity and understanding that she obviously derived from her own life experiences.  Tyrone Flowers, who plays the role of Reverend Winters, Doris’ father, is an ordained elder at Pilgrim Cathedral of Harlem and that background is evident in his own singing and portrayal of his part.  Sandra Huff, who plays the role of Sister Carrie, Doris’ aunt and godmother, is the worship leader for the Agape Family Worship Center in Rahway, New Jersey and, wow, she really can belt out a song.

Which brings us to Elijah Ahmad Lewis who plays the role of Minister of Music at Doris’ church and who, in that position, is responsible for training and leading the choir.  He is simply sensational.  He moves with the grace of a dancer and the sensuousness of a circus contortionist.  He moves his body in ways that I would not have thought possible if I hadn’t seen them for myself.  Imagine an accomplished break dancer with bones of rubber.  And the exuberance he conveys is absolutely infectious.

In addition to the lead players, Mama, I Want to Sing: The Next Generation also features several wonderful performers from the Gospel for Teens Choir, the award winning choir that Vy Higginsin founded to pass the tradition of gospel music on from one generation to the next.

At the performance I attended, the overwhelming majority of the members of the audience were of African-American descent and it was obvious from their response to the show that many, if not most, shared the gospel music tradition therein depicted.  To that extent, they probably could derive even greater pleasure from this production than could the small minority of us there who do not share that heritage.  But in a broader sense, this show has universal appeal in terms of the basic family values it espouses.  White or black, Christian or Jew, Italian, Irish, Chinese or whatever – all can recognize, understand and empathize with the pain associated with a young daughter’s loss of her father, with a mother’s reluctance to let go of her child in a dangerous and uncertain world, and with a girl’s desire to strike out on her own and follow her dreams.  This show has captured all that and, whatever your background, I urge you to see it.

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