On opening night of “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” the titular subject will be sandwiched between two of the most important people in his life – his mother, Delores, and former televangelist Jim Bakker.
Somewhere in the three rows being reserved for the prodigious Winans family will be older brother Marvin — and Winans has a plan for him. He asked the staff to have someone on standby ready to put tape over Marvin’s mouth.
“I know during certain scenes he will blurt out things like, ‘I didn’t say that!’” BeBe Winans said with a chuckle and a clap of his hands at the image.
Everything in Winans’ lore revolves around family, and “Born for This,” which premieres at the Alliance Theatre April 23, will serve as an exclamation point to one of the most successful careers in gospel music.
Winans and sister CeCe Winans (portrayed by their nephew Juan and niece Deborah Joy) vaulted to stardom after a pivotal four-year stint in the 1980s on “The PTL Club,” shepherded by Bakker and his flamboyantly decorated wife, Tammy Faye – a fact that many fans of the musical family don’t know or have forgotten.
On a recent afternoon, Winans sat, legs crossed, newsboy cap hovering above his salt and pepper beard, a few rows from the stage where his life story will unfold.
“Most people don’t know this story,” Winans, 53, said of his and CeCe’s history with the Bakkers. “Even those who have been close friends have no clue. But if it wasn’t for that relationship (with the Bakkers), there would be no BeBe and CeCe.”
There also might not be a “Born for This” if not for a fortuitous lunch Winans had with friend Charles Randolph-Wright (“Motown: The Musical”) about five years ago. Winans had been working on a staged version of his story for several years when he shared a meal with Randolph-Wright, who mentioned he grew up near Pineville, N.C.
“That was the magic word. I looked at him and said, ‘What do you know about Pineville?’ because you don’t mention Pineville if you don’t know Pineville,” said Winans, a Detroit native who lives in Nashville.
Familiarity with the small town close to the then-headquarters of “The PTL Club” immediately convinced Winans that Randolph-Wright was “someone who knew my story almost better than me.”
Their partnership, Winans said, has been one of unmitigated trust. The pair co-wrote the book, and Randolph-Wright is directing the show named after the 2002 song Winans recorded with Stephanie Mills.
“Born for This” explores the musical birth of BeBe and CeCe – she has no involvement in the musical, but will be there opening night to support her brother – as well as the rejections he suffered (“PTL” initially hired CeCe but not BeBe, telling him he had no talent) and subsequent ascension to six-time Grammy winner. But taboo topics such as the racist reactions during the Winans’ run on “The PTL Club” and BeBe’s “forbidden love” with a Caucasian co-worker are also underscored.
“I think people will be really surprised at how much their story – 30-something years ago – is so similar to the times we find ourselves in now and how we relate to each other and that humanity, or lack of humanity,” said Juan Winans. “I think it will be a good moment for everybody to take stock and say, ‘How are we loving one another?’”
Downstairs in the yellow-hued rehearsal room at the Alliance, the cast is running through a handful of songs for the first time with the full band.
Kirsten Wyatt (from Broadway’s “A Christmas Story: The Musical”) is stripped of her garish Tammy Faye makeup as she bops through the perky “Two Golden Eggs,” one of BeBe Winans’ favorites among the two dozen songs – a number which will likely be trimmed by opening night — in the lineup.
Then Juan Winans steps up to the microphone and, in a robust, soaring voice, unleashes the inspirational words of the musical’s title anthem.
Behind him, a row of cast members capture the moment on smartphones and whoop approvingly at his vocal acrobatics.
But it is Juan’s sister, Deborah Joy, who leans forward the farthest, throwing her arms in the air with the fervency of a churchgoer as she salutes her brother’s performance.
The irony of siblings playing siblings – and from the same family, no less – is not lost on these younger Winans, who are also awed by the full circle-ness of it all.
“It’s been amazing, but it’s been challenging,” said Deborah Joy, whoappears this summer in the new Atlanta-based show “Greenleaf” on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN channel. “Being able to do this with my brother … I think he’s one of the best singers in the world and has really helped build my confidence. I get to do this with someone who I love and think is the best.”
BeBe Winans knows that dynamic well and is confident that – jokester brother Marvin aside – his family will approve of the content in the show.
“My father always said, ‘My children are going to know who they are before they leave this house.’ Our parents were the foundation that I know other people didn’t have in their upbringing,” Winans said. “This (story) is my personal view of not just me and CeCe, but of our family. My family knows me. There is no fear.”
Winans is hopeful the show, a co-production with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where it moves July 1 (Boston looks likely for fall and there is “Broadway chatter” already), injects theatergoers with a surge of inspiration.
“There are so many people who don’t know who they are, and I really believe that this piece will help people to understand that you’re not a mistake, that there is a purpose for your life. The music world will tell you by age 29 that you’re too old – they’re looking for 5-year-olds these days. So people who have dreams of singing, I want them to know they can still reach that goal. In this life, there will be people who disagree with your goals – and that’s OK. But I continued, and that’s what I do now to this day,” Winans said. “This isn’t just my story. It’s everybody’s story.”
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