BEBE AND CECE WINANS: “BORN FOR THIS” OPENS AT BROAD STAGE IN SANTA MONICA

by Barbara Smith                                                              Photo by Greg Money

It’s an unlikely story: Two African American teenagers from Detroit join a family of white televangelists in North Carolina, who become their surrogate parents. Their talent skyrockets them to stardom, laying the groundwork for a trailblazing career, earning Grammys, gold and platinum hits and a lifetime of inspirational music and jaw-dropping performances. Unlikely, perhaps, but in “Born for This,” a musical penned by BeBe Winans, co-written by Charles Randolph-Wright (“Motown the Musical” director), the story that unfolds is a dazzling production filled with honesty, emotion, humor, and ultimately a journey toward self-discovery.

“Born for This,” which premiered last year at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta and the Arena stage in Washington, DC, opened July 11 at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage and runs through August 6.  “The baby is born,” smiles Winans, “and now it’s taking its first steps.” And it’s truly a coming-of-age story,” adds the breakthrough vocalist/songwriter/producer, of the path taken by him and sister CeCe during their tender teen years.  “We left the protective bubble that our parents had created for us and embarked on a journey,” he says.  “I didn’t know it then, but those years were probably the most important years of my life.”

Winans’ voice is deep and resonant and his conversation is punctuated with robust laughter as he reminisces on those years when the siblings moved to North Carolina to become part of the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, a Christian television program led by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Of the 4000 employees, there were only four African Americans, he and CeCe being two of them. “It was a different world. It was interesting to me and it was wonderful,” he laughs, as the Bakkers took on their new charges in a loving, protective way. “They had promised our mother that they would take care of us and they did, shielding us and making sure we were safe,” Winans remembers, adding that to this day Jim Bakker is a very dear father figure to him. But there were eye-opening moments, to be sure, when the youngster tried to fathom pumpkin pie (“What’s wrong with y’all,” he exclaimed, “Where’s the sweet potato pie?”), or for recreation, when, instead of playing basketball, the crew took to rock climbing and white water rafting. In a humorous vignette in the play, Mom Winans phones and commands Cece, “Will you tell my son he’s black!”

To think that even in the protective bubble the Bakkers created the Winans would not experience racism would be naïve, and some of these challenges are explored in the play. “It became quite a bumpy journey,” he says, “because I thought everyone, especially everyone who loved Jesus, would love their fellow man.  And that’s not the reality. These were formative years for me.”

The Winans’ relationship with superstar Whitney Houston is also a big part of “Born for This.” “We called her our long lost sister,” Winans reflects. “Since the day we met we became family. She was raised the same way we were raised, in the church. Her mom was a lover of gospel music. She became a part of our whole family’s life. Cissy (Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother) became another mother of my family. Our lives both musically and outside of music were just as close as you can get.”  Portrayed by Kiandra Richardson, her delivery of “Applause” (one of over twenty songs the prolific songwriter composed for the show), that speaks to one’s desire for fame as well as its pitfalls brought both tears and joy to Winans.  “When I hear that song, I’m always about to weep and smile at the same time, he says. “The moment we created during her lifetime is…a memory that will last for the rest of our lives.”

The seventh child of ten, and youngest male born to the Detroit-based first family of gospel music, Winans, 54, is a 6-time Grammy winner. Growing up, he says, they seemed like just a typical family to him. Of course the record reflects otherwise, with Mom and Pop—Deloris and David—Winans earning Grammy nominations, and most of the other siblings all noted gospel performers.

With genres spanning inspirational, R & B, and pop, he and CeCe are the first true Christian crossover artists to hit the mainstream and are the first brother and sister to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Co-writing “Born for This” represents another branch in a bountiful tree that spans music, acting, writing and humanitarian work.

For Winans, the common thread running through the play as well as his own life is kindness. “Being kind can open doors. It gives people the opportunity to feel free to tell their own stories. I found it’s easier to be kind to people even if they are not kind to you. I learned this early on and I continue to keep in it the forefront of everything I do.” As he speaks, his conversation often turns toward his father, who he regards as his best role model. When asked once what he would like his legacy to be, his father replied, “I want to be known as a man who forgave. That to me is the best legacy you can live. No matter how people might do you wrong, you have the power and the choice to forgive.” Winans adds, “It takes a real man, a brave man to do that. And my father was brave and he will always be my hero.”

The roles of BeBe and Cece are played by their nephew and niece Juan and Deborah Joy Winans, both accomplished artists in their own right. Says Winans: “It’s wonderful to see Deborah Joy’s confidence as a singer rise to a high level, and when her brother joined the cast, his acting did the same. It’s been a great thing to see their talent be explored and grow. Other cast members include Chaz Pofahl (Jim Bakker), and Kirsten Wyatt (Tammy Faye Bakker).

In this era of divisiveness, does “Born for This” provide a counterpoint from which we can learn? “What we see today is nothing we haven’t seen or haven’t known,” offers Winans.  “It’s more in the forefront than ever before,” he adds. “but it’s the same answer now as before. It will always be God, it will always be love, it will always be truth.”

Tickets for “Born for This” can be purchased at www.thebroadstage.com or by calling 310-434-3200.

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