Gospel music recording artist BeBe Winans thought his dear friend, music legend Roberta Flack, was crazy to randomly suggest via phone that he create a musical about his family. Four days later, inspiration suddenly hit the six-time Grammy award winner in his Montreal hotel room.
Winans opened up his laptop and began writing the first draft. He didn’t realize it at the time, but Flack’s muse birthed his tentatively Broadway-bound bio-play, Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story. “It was the weirdest thing I’d ever experienced,” he says with his legs crossed seated in the lobby of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre hours before the world premiere. “It was like a faucet turned on.”
Born For This is a soulful production that chronicles the Detroit native’s relationship with his siblings, the massively successful, Grammy-winning gospel act, The Winans. Raised Pentecostal in a family of nine brothers and sisters, Winans, along with his best-selling younger sister, CeCe, relocated to Pineville, NC to join televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker on the television series, The PTL Club. Once the trailblazing duo migrated South, the teenagers were confronted with culture shock, bouts of homesickness and racism.
The dramatic work also depicts Winans’ attempt to balance fame with fortune. The easygoing Gospel Music Hall of Famer considers writing the play “medication.” “I didn’t know that was happening when it was happening,” he says chuckling over distant choir harmonies in the background. “I knew I wasn’t afraid to feel or admit what I was feeling.”
Honored earlier this year as a BMI Trailblazer of Gospel Music along with CeCe, Winans co-wrote Born For This with director Charles Randolph-Wright (Motown: The Musical). He recalls meeting Randolph-Wright over lunch, immediately impressed that the Duke University alumnus knew about Pineville. Randolph-Wright, a Paul Robeson award recipient, suggested to Winans after reading the first draft of the script that he make his coming-of-age story in North Carolina the nucleus of the plot.
“From that moment on, I knew that this was the man to do this with,” confirms a soft-spoken, skull cap-wearing Winans. “He knew my story. It’s always different when you speak to someone who knows your story. It was easy to entrust him with my story. The collaboration has been absolutely incredible.”
Born For This was workshopped over four years. Whenever the pair would meet at Starbucks, Wright’s favorite place, the former Royal Shakespeare Company and Alvin Ailey Dance Company understudy would assign Winans to write original music under strict deadlines. Winans, cast previously in two Broadway productions, shadowed Randolph-Wright during Motown: The Musical’s run. The prolific vocalist synonymous with marrying gospel, inspirational messaging, R&B and pop together says he sat in New York for nine years to meticulously study the lavish theatre culture.
“I wanted this caliber and that quality,” shares Winans. “In doing this piece [with Charles], I realized there’s a lot of time and work invested in plays. You are consumed when you do musicals and plays. Because we respect each other, we have what we have.”
Admitting he was uncertain about the fate of Born For This, Winans adds, “You work on something, give it your all and there are no guarantees that it’ll reach any of the destinations that you plan for it. When it does, it just causes you to be grateful as well as humble.”
Premiering Born For This in Atlanta was Randolph-Wright’s suggestion. The playwright, set to executive produce a miniseries for NBC about the Underground Railroad with Stevie Wonder, had a great working relationship with Alliance Theatre. Priding himself on following people and being in awe of the theatre veteran’s sense of humor, Winans, exploding with interpersonal savvy himself, was sold on Randolph-Wright’s preference once he connected with the Alliance’s executive team.
“I understood,” states Winans. “They took our child, and it became theirs. They became incredible doctors, surgeons, nurses and all of those things you need in the delivery room.”
Winans, a composer of original music for the OWN church-based dramatic series Greenleaf, gives Atlanta props for consistently being supportive of him and his family. “Atlantans have always been there,” he proclaims. “I don’t care what. They’re coming to see us. It’s a great support city.”
The most rewarding part about developing Born For This to Winans is being able to revisit his relationship with his entire family. The show stars his nephew and niece, siblings Juan and Deborah Joy Winans. Winans says he and his relatives dismiss the “First Family of Gospel” tag that continues to peg them.
The Winans family, he adds, gets tickled to death anytime they hear or read it. “That was not our suggestion,” confirms a guffawing Winans. “People always label you, but we don’t see ourselves that way.” Further considering his family “cutthroat but in a good way,” Winans thinks his family is hilarious.
During the holidays, the entire Winans clan normally visits a city for at least a week to fellowship with one another. Winans believes audience members will be immersed in a snippet of that interaction via Born For This. “We have so much fun together,” he says. “We enjoy one another. That’s missing in the world we live in. They will see how close knit we are.”
A warm smile is plastered to Winans’ face just thinking about the progress he’s made with Born For This. He’s so engaged in conversing about the show, he prolongs heading back into tech rehearsals with the crew to record a pre-show announcement.
Winans is moved anytime he meets people expressing how he’s inspired them. The fearless icon hopes his existence can continuously encourage others to live out their dreams. He imparts some empowering choice words before he heads back into the main theater.
“You can survive,” expresses Winans. “You have a destination, a purpose for your life, no matter where you find yourself. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Don’t be afraid to fail. When it happens, get up, wipe yourself off and keep it going. If we’re representing the king, it should be first class.”
Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story is staged at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta from April 13 – May 15, 2016. Check the website for showtime.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.