'Mama, I Want To Sing' celebrates 30 years

LINDA ARMSTRONG Special to the AmNews | 3/18/2013, 11:54 a.m.
It is marvelous to realize the creativity of African-American people. It is especially marvelous when...
'Mama, I Want to Sing' celebrates 30 years

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'Mama, I Want To Sing' celebrates 30 years

photo

'Mama, I Want To Sing' celebrates 30 years

photo

'Mama, I Want To Sing' celebrates 30 years

photo

Photo of: Vy Higginsen's season grand opening of two hit plays: Sing Harlem Sing! and Mama, I Want to Sing at the Dempsey theater, at 127 West 127th Street. Vy and Knolle Higginsen, and their singers showing off the Emmy on stage at the Dempsey theater. Photo credit: G.N. Miller/New York Post (c) 2012

It is marvelous to realize the creativity of African-American people. It is especially marvelous when our creativity is used to showcase our history and our contributions to society. That was one of Vy Higginsen's goals thirty years ago, when she and Ken Wydro created the beloved, long-running musical, "Mama, I Want to Sing." The musical tells the story of Higginsen's real-life sister, Doris Troy, who was known for her hit "Just One Look." With this musical, Higginsen depicts the dilemma her sister went through as she struggled with choosing to sing gospel or secular music. Higginsen also shows the tenderness and care that their father, a Harlem minister, had for his talented daughter. Anyone who has seen this show over these last three decades can attest to why this production has withstood the test of time. On Sat., March 23 at 7pm, the show will officially celebrate its 30th anniversary with a gala event that will benefit Gospel for Teens, a program of Higgensen's Mama Foundation for the Art's School for Gospel, Jazz and R&B Arts. The gala will be held at the production's home at the Dempsey Theatre, located at 127 West 127th St., between Lenox and Seventh avenues. The original production opened in Harlem at the Heckscher Theatre.

Higginsen recently took the time to reflect on the milestone that this production has reached.

AmNews: How does it feel to know that "Mama, I Want to Sing" is 30 years old?

How is that possible?! I feel stunned. Just a few months ago, I was working and realized that it would soon be 30 years since it all began. Three decades of experiences, memories . . . and joy. And we're still here, going strong. Time goes by so quickly. When you are so blessed, as I am, to love your work, you just do it. You don't stop to keep track of the time.

Why is it important to document the history of Black music? And in this production's case, why was it so important to document this singer's life, Doris Troy, and her contributions to the world of music and the community of Harlem?

Black music--in all its genres--has made such a major contribution to the American cultural landscape. It's an important part of American history and the American experience. To ignore that fact would be negligent. Our music, through its lyrics and sound, expresses our lives and emotions . . . our fears and struggles and our faith, hopes and joys. My life's work has been to recognize its creative, artistic and cultural magnificence. And this singer's life is documented because she was my sister. When she was a young girl, Doris sang in the choir at my father's church. And when she was a teenager, she was discovered by James Brown at the Apollo. She went on to a successful career in popular music; she worked and lived in London, where she was known as "Mama Soul" and worked with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And she shared all her experiences with me. That inspired me to tell this story. As I wrote my family's history, I became aware that it wasn't just about my sister or my family. It was a Harlem story about the church, the radio and the Apollo. And it was a story that represented a lot of African-Americans--those whose evolution was from the church to the radio and then to world stages. It's the story of the giants of all these genres, whose shoulders we all stand on musically. Finally, it was important to me that I document the sounds of that particular era. The mid-twentieth century when gospel, jazz, R&B and soul really flourished . . . It was a total black experience in sound. It influenced popular music, changing the history of music in America and abroad.

When you put this show together as a labor of love and a tribute to your sister, did you ever expect it to last the test of time and to touch and inspire generations of people?

I am touched that it has inspired so many people of all cultures, all over the world. Again, it reaffirms the fact that we must learn to not take ourselves and our music for granted.

On March 23, you are going to have a gala event that will serve as a fundraiser for your Gospel for Teens program, which is delivered to young people ages 13 to 19 free of charge. Vy, how are you able to underwrite the costs for this program and to do it for so many years?

To quote the "60 Minutes" story on Gospel for Teens, we "scrapped the money together." The Mama Foundation and the program has the support of many individual donors (and I would like to add that this gala was graciously underwritten by Myrna and Freddie Gershon), and we receive some grants as well. There is a Performing Before Live Audiences group of students who have gone through all the levels of training. We now do bookings and personal appearances, and the fees we get from these gigs helps support the organization as well.

Why should people support this program?

I have witnessed how important the arts are, how access to this music has changed the lives of those exposed to it. We transform lives through music at the Mama Foundation. Each year brings us both amazing opportunities and incredible challenges. I hope that new people discover us and choose to support the gifted young people who receive unparalleled instruction through this program at no cost to them or their families.

Will all the members of the benefit committee be attending the event--Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Cissy Houston, Shirley Caesar, Melba Moore, Valerie Simpson and Dionne Warwick?

Most will. Lesley Stahl is the chair of the committee, and we will be honoring her that evening. Shirley and Chaka have performances elsewhere that day, but their help in putting this event together has been invaluable, and I am so grateful. I'm hoping to see everyone else and more fabulous people who support our work.

What inspired you in 1998 to start the Mama Foundation for the Arts and what inspires you daily to keep this vital non-profit going?

My daughter, Knoelle, was my main inspiration. I wanted to be sure that some of the music of our ancestors was passed on to her. So the class we held consisted of her friends from her performing arts school. And when I saw the joy they got from receiving the instruction, I knew we had to keep it going and share it with others.

How can people get tickets to the upcoming gala?

Call the Mama Foundation at 212-280-1045. And not just for the gala. We are here year-round. We produce affordable musical productions for the entire family at the Dempsey Theatre. And we offer classes for teens and adults at the Foundation. I want the community to consider the Mama Foundation as its cultural center.

The gala will begin with a very special performance that includes musical highlights from "Mama, I Want to Sing" and "Sing Harlem Sing!," as well as a performance from the Gospel for Teens Choir. After, there's a post-performance celebration at Melba's Catering Hall in the State Office Building (one black away from the theatre), where some of the most soulful food Harlem has to offer will be served . . . Red Rooster Harlem, Sylvia's, Jacob Soul Food, Corner Social, Melba's, Spoonbread, Chez Lucienne, Golden Crust, and Make My Cake are just some of our restaurant sponsors.

When it comes to our musical history, why must we continue to claim it?

If we don't claim our own musical creations, someone else will. This is our culture. It is something to be proud of.