In the midst of imminent sociopolitical divisiveness, hegemony, jingoism and xenophobia in America, comes Born For This, a play about renowned gospel singer and six time Grammy Award winner Bebe Winans’s journey celebrating life, love, family unity, and the enduring power of resiliency, showing at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre from June. 15th through July 15th and written by Charles Randolph-Wright, BeBe Winans, Lisa D’Amour and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.
This play can be perceived as a vivid bildungsroman recounting the Detroit childhood upbringing of sensational brother-sister gospel singers BeBe and Cece Winans and their eventual departure from their ubiquitous singing family to Pineville, North Carolina to join Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise The Lord Network (PTL). There, they would experience inexorable “culture shock” as they learn about love, racism and the traps and costs of fame. The televangelist couple assimilates the role of improbable surrogate family as the siblings hastily escalate to television prominence. After the brother-sister act attain astonishing success with a PTL rendering of a cover version of the secular hit song, “Love Lift Us Up (Where We Belong),” from the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, they come against the allure of celebrity and they form a life-long bond with then burgeoning pop star Whitney Houston. Ultimately, BeBe is compelled to learn to mediate the lures of celebrity and prosperity with the things he essentially treasures most in accordance with his religious upbringing.
“We are beyond thrilled to be continuing Arts Emerson’s relationship with this remarkably inspirational work,” said David Howse, Executive Director of ArtsEmerson. “Our commitment to this piece began in 2013, when we provided BeBe Winans and Charles Randolph-Wright with space for two workshops of what was then a brand new idea for a Broadway musical.” The production aimed at constructing this “idea” around an illustrious set, luminescent lighting and thundering musical performances that had the audience quite literally on the edge of their seats from beginning to end. The chemistry between the actors as the Winans family was palpable; thus propelling the entertaining but at times caustic plot that manifested Bebe and Cece Winans dually painful and joyous journey of self-discovery and eventual salvation and liberation from the trappings of celebrity.
The portrayal of the incomparable Whitney Houston, who befriended the Winans as they strove to climb the precarious rungs of musical success, was mesmerizing, magical, nostalgic and powerful. Her wistful rendition of “Don’t live for the applause because you’ll get lost” was touching and haunting. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s characterizations were gut-busting and uproarious. From Jim’s sanctimonious bravado to Tammy’s squeaky high pitched voice and super happy disposition or “buffoonery” as described by the Mrs. Winans character. Yes, the Bakkers helped catapult the Winans to singing stardom, however, this play also sheds light on the Bakkers’ stealthy, perhaps even nefarious motives for inviting the Winans on their hit television show to begin with: to generate more donations and to attract a broader audience because the show was “looking too white,” as Tammy Faye puts it. To do that, they portrayed Cece as a prostitute and Bebe as a drug addict to their largely Caucasian audience without their prior knowledge or consent. The white male singers on the show were not immediately receptive to the Winans, one barking works like “you’re standing in my spot BOY!”, the other stating that they will tolerate the Winans as long as the “stay in their place” reminding us of present day recurrence of emboldened racism, intolerance and ignorance that has divided the United (?) States of America.
However, later on in the show, that same male singer redeems himself by absconding from the grips of ignorance and racism and into the enlightened arms of justice and accountability when he expresses regret for usurping the dignity of the teenage Bebe when he said, “I was taught to think that nig…err…I mean black people were evil…I cringed when I had to shake your hands…” And goes on to explain how because he got to know Bebe, he had a change of heart. “I tried to break you” he said, as Bebe was getting ready to leave the television show to pursue singing as a duo with his sister Cece, “But you didn’t break”. This exemplifies the impetus, faith and resilience as demonstrated by Bebe and Cece along their spiritual and musical journey away from their family.
The issue of race is an emphatic theme throughout this compelling story as it explores interracial relationships. Bebe and a white female singer starts to develop romantic feelings for one another and when the audience starts to take notice of their nascent romance and threats of violence began to pour in, Tammy Faye tells Bebe to end the relationship or she will fire the young woman. When he asks her why, she abruptly exclaims “Because we’re in the south!”
This play not only tackles difficult and timely subject matters, but it does so with great staging, spectacular lighting, imaginative props and a live band!. The song and dance numbers are exciting, contemporary and well-choreographed; they propelled the trajectory of the plot seamlessly into an emotionally satisfying denouement. Mayor Martin J. Walsh proclaimed opening night of June 22, 2018 as officially “Born For This” Day in Boston, Massachusetts. At the end, the ensemble cast along with Bebe Winans interacted with the audience and Bebe gave a moving soliloquy about the true message of the play: unity and love in the face of divisiveness and hate as the racially diverse cast collectively held hands and took a final bow and Bebe addressing the crowd “I know you’re going to help us take this play to Broadway!” And I agree wholeheartedly, Broadway bound is where “Born For This” should be heading. I give this colorful, magnificent and compelling production five out of five stars.
Jacques Fleury’s books Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe. It’s Always Sunrise Somewhere and Other Stories is a collection of short fictional stories spanning the pervasive human condition. Their topics range from politics to romantics, from sex to sexuality, from religion to oppression. 20% of proceeds for both books will go to Haiti charity Partners In Health.