‘Mama, I Want to Sing!’ creator Vy Higginsen on revival, legacy of the show: ‘We need this story now more than ever’

The longest-running Black musical in off-Broadway history is back for a special limited engagement.

“Mama, I Want To Sing!” is back! The musical co-written by Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro has returned to Harlem for a special limited engagement, currently running at El Museo’s El Teatro. TheGrio caught up with Vy Higginsen ahead of the show’s opening on Feb. 26, breaking down the show’s history, the legacy of Black American theater and what she hopes for this new limited engagement of the musical.

Based on Higginsen’s sister Doris Troy, the popular musical chronicles Doris Winter, a singer raised in the church who becomes an R&B superstar. Originally opening in 1983, the show stands as the longest-running Black off-Broadway musical in “the history of the American theater,” running for a whopping 2,800 performances at the Heckscher Theater in Harlem. The production returned to Harlem’s Dempsey Theatre in 2011.

The show’s success grew even further than New York City, traveling all over the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and Japan, featuring stars such as Chaka Khan, Cece Winans, Shirley Caesar, and Stephanie Mills in the cast. The musical has led to two sequels, “Mama, I Want to Sing, Part II” and “Mama III: Born to Sing!,” and a musical movie adaptation starring Ciara, Lynn Whitfield, Patti LaBelle and Ben Vereen.

“Mama, I Want To Sing!”
(Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg)

“The question that is often asked is, ‘Did you know that this was going to happen,’” Higginsen told us when speaking of the success and legacy of her show. “In this case, the fantasy matched the reality. All we wanted to do was to tell it the way we saw it. I got a lot of no’s in the beginning … I needed to show the whole picture of the Black musical experience.”

“It’s a piece of Black American theater history,” she continued. “There is no doubt about it. I feel that this was a very necessary story, a musical story and a healing story. This is a story about family, about faith, about love and about music. And when you are telling that story, you are telling an American story!”

Filled with universal themes and returning at a time when the conversations around Black representation in American theater are at the forefront, Higginsen believes the tale is more timely now than when it first debuted.

“We need this story now more than ever. When the concept of choices, decisions, integrity and values are at the forefront…we really need this story.” She continued to speak about the conscious effort of putting the show in a Harlem theater instead of the downtown theater scene in New York City.

“Access to theater is an important part of our mission,” she said. “Great theater at great prices … we wanted to make sure that we were theater for the masses, for the young and for the old.”

“Mama, I Want To Sing!”
(Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg)

With so many iterations of the show, even 40 years later, Higginsen tells us she is still learning new things about her show, especially regarding the history of Black music as American music. “In the case of ‘Mama, I Want to Sing!’ coming back in its historical context, the celebration is of Black theater, Black history, Black culture and mostly Black voices. Our sound is unique, and it’s an American sound.”

“This show in particular, it didn’t matter whether we were in Harlem, Germany, Switzerland, or Australia … people laughed in the same place, cried in the same place and clapped in the same place, and that blew my mind. It really is true what music can do for healing and well-being and for the universal understanding of human nature.”

The current run of “Mama, I Want to Sing!” is playing through March 12. The cast includes Asa Sulton, Elise Silva and Faith Cochrane who alternate the lead role of Doris Winter; Letrice Arlene Cherry-Sturdivant as Mama; Dawn Joyner and Leah Stewart, who share the role of Sister Carrie; Richard Hartley and Lamont O’Neal, who share the role of Rev. Winter; and Carlton Ellen as The Minister of Music.

For more information about the show and purchasing tickets, head to www.MamaFoundation.org.

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