There is something so important and beautiful about us telling our stories and sharing our rich creative history. For 40 years, Vy Higginsen has been doing just that as the creator of the musical “Mama I Want to Sing” and has been presenting it for four decades, sharing the story of her sister Doris Troy, a child singer with a superb voice who grew to be a gifted soul and R&B singer—something not readily embraced by her Pentecostal minister father. 

Higginsen tells the story of her sister’s struggles to do what was in her heart to do, and audiences have been coming to hear the story, the incredible music, and vocal performances for years. In this production, you get to hear gospel and Troy’s hits like “Just One Look” and “Whatcha Gonna Do About It.” 

The musical, which was co-written, produced, and directed originally by Higginsen (who is also the founder, executive director, and producer of the Mama Foundation for the Arts) and her husband Ken Wydro in 1983, has come full circle and returned to its original home at El Museo’s El Teatro—formerly known as the Heckscher Theater (1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street). The musical will play only through March 12.

The journey that Higginsen chronicles for her sister is filled with drama, sorrow, love, and inspiration, and highlights all of Troy’s accomplishments in the music industry, which are quite a lot. This musical succeeds in taking the audience to church every time. 

Higginsen recently took the time to speak to the AmNews about the show’s 40th Anniversary.

AmNews: How does it feel to have “Mama I Want to Sing” being performed for its 40th anniversary?

VH: Well, it seems like just yesterday and the memories are flowing through my brain from 1983 to now 2023—40years on a magical musical ride, a journey through time zones: eight years at the Heckscher Theater, two and a half years around the United States of America. “Mama I Want to Sing” traveled to many countries, including the West End of London, then two to three times a year in Japan since 1988. It’s exciting, it’s scary, wonderful, hopeful, and inspiring. 

AmNews: You wrote this musical to share the story and legacy of your sister Doris Troy, but over the decades, what has this production grown into, in addition to that?

VH: I wrote this musical with my husband, Ken Wydro, to celebrate my sister, Doris Troy, and the music that was created contributed to the American musical landscape—the power of music and the music that came from the church.

AmNews: You’ve always been someone who puts their money where their mouth is, thus starting the Mama Foundation for the Arts to ensure that young Black people who love to sing have a place to go and hone that craft from ages 7–19. What has being at the helm of something so important and amazing meant to you and your family?

VH: Traveling with “Mama I Want to Sing,” we realized that we had valuable information to share, so we came back home to give that to our community—what we learned, and how to keep the music alive and seek using young people as ambassadors of the music.

AmNews: You have put pen to paper and done a trilogy of musicals: two other incarnations of your sister’s story include “Sing! Mama I1” and “Mama III: Born to Sing,” but “Mama I Want to Sing” is what started it all. Why is our capturing the stories of our families and sharing them with others something that more of us should strive to do?

VH: I can’t honestly say that it’s easy—it’s hard, and there are ups and downs and lots of no’s and enough yes’s to keep you going. I do believe that writing a journal is healthy and good for well-being. Transporting your ideas into reality is sometimes far more difficult mentally, financially, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s not easy just to be honest.

AmNews: “Mama I Want to Sing” has become a vehicle for many people’s careers. Tell me about the three LaGuardia High students you have alternating as Doris: Asa Sulton, Elise Silva, and Faith Cochrane.

VH: The artist needs a platform, a vehicle, to express their talent and not everybody gets that.

The three young girls who are part of the Mama Foundation for the Arts and sharing the role of Doris Winter have a platform to be nurtured, developed, and have access to opportunity. The role of Doris Winter can change your life: A 14-year-old or 16-year-old gets a chance to grow in front of an audience and it’s a beautiful thing.

AmNews: What made these girls stand out?

VH: These girls were standouts because they were vocally talented, as well as good actresses. Ninety percent of the show is the right casting. They are young, gifted, and Black.

AmNews: You have your daughter Knoelle directing the production. She has grown up with this musical, played the role of Doris herself, and plays a vital role with the Mama Foundation. Why was it important to you to make sure that this was part of the legacy you gave in her life?

VH: Bottom line is she’s qualified. She’s been in the show, she’s seen all of the versions of the show, she knows the music. She’s an excellent teacher, so she trained the cast vocally as well as the choreographer.

AmNews: What is the message of “Mama I Want to Sing” that you want an audience to get?

VH: The messages are in the music, in the lyrics—we talk about faith, hope, and possibility. We talk about visualizing and following your dream and purpose in life.

AmNews: What does it take to dedicate your life to eternalizing those you love?

VH: Hard work—there’s no substitute for hard work. You have to put in the time, and love unconditionally.

AmNews: Why should people come to see “Mama I Want to Sing”?

VH: People should come to see the show because music has power. People should come to see the show because the messages are in the music and the music is transformative. You can lift your spirits. It turns you around—music can put you in a better frame of mind. We need music now, more than ever to help us make good choices and become whole human beings. 

In addition to the three actresses starring as Doris Troy, the cast includes Letrice Arlene Cherry-Stardivaat as Mama; Dawn Joyner and Leah Stewart sharing the role of Sister Carrie; Richard Hartley and Lamont O’Neal sharing the role of Rev. Winter; and Carlton Ellen as the Minister of Music. 

The musical features the graduate choir from the Mama Foundation for the Arts program, including Jaron K. Fields, Barry Manderson, Deana Cowan, Asia Desheilds, Lateria Powell, Khyra Cunningham, Melonie B. Smith, Jonique Edwards, Hannah Asencio, Gloria Anderson, Shaterrica Hyder, Sanaa Lee, Domonique Dawkins, Neil Watt, Kaiya Stevens, Kamal Morales, Cherise Gissentanner, and Turner Messer. 

The musical is directed by Ahmaya-Knoelle with musical direction by Kevin McCoy and Greg Kelly and costume design by Theda Dennis. 

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