By Peter Marks Theater critic October 21 at 6:46 PM
As impressionable teenagers, BeBe Winans and his sister CeCe traveled a remarkable God-focused path, from a gospel-infused Pentecostal home in Detroit to the stage of a Christian television ministry in Charlotte, presided over by none other than Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Now their improbable road to tuneful evangelical fame, in the run-up to the Bakkers’ tabloid-frenzied trials and tribulations, becomes the trajectory of a musical. “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” with new music by Winans himself and a book he wrote with director Charles Randolph-Wright, debuts in the spring in Atlanta before taking up residence for much of the summer at Arena Stage.
Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic. View Archive
“It’s almost like experiencing an out-of-body experience,” the Grammy-winning BeBe Winans said by phone from Atlanta, where he’s working on music for “Greenleaf,” a new megachurch-set television series for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. “When you’re going through life, you don’t think your life is anything other than like anyone else’s. You have your ups and downs, so you never think of your life as a musical.”
With the assistance of Randolph-Wright, a frequent presence at Arena as both writer and director, the story of the teens’ years with the Bakkers, who brought them aboard as backup singers for their popular “The PTL Club” show, will be a major element of the musical. A sex scandal and revelations of financial improprieties would end Jim Bakker’s ministry — and send him to prison on multiple counts of mail and wire fraud. Still, audiences are not apt to get a negative impression of him or the often-lampooned Tammy Faye Bakker this time around.
“To this day, Jim Bakker is one of our dearest friends,” said Winans, who went on to a gospel recording career as a solo artist and with his sister. “And Tammy Faye became our mother. Thirty years after [“PTL”], when my sister and I were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first person I called was Jim Bakker.” Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker divorced in 1992, and she died in 2007. Jim Bakker lives in Branson, Mo., according to Randolph-Wright.
The production — which will be staged by Randolph-Wright at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and run there from April 13 to May 15 before starting at Arena Stage in July — is cementing a new role for Arena as an outpost for summertime tryouts of musicals. In July and August, the company hosted the world premiere of “Dear Evan Hansen,” a musical by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Steven Levenson that became a critical and audience hit. The reception was such that plans for a run in the spring at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre were firmed up before the D.C. engagement ended.
Randolph-Wright, director of “Motown the Musical,” the retrospective of the Motown sound and the life of record producer Berry Gordy that makes its Washington premiere Dec. 1 at the National Theatre, has conducted workshops and readings of “Born for This” in Boston, New York , Atlanta and Charlotte. He said that as the piece was being developed, he felt ever more strongly that the narrative should not only focus on the Winans family’s deep connection to music — BeBe and CeCe’s older brothers sang as a gospel group — but also on the young Winanses’ time with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
“ ‘You have one of the greatest stories ever with Jim and Tammy,’ ” Randolph-Wright said he told Winans. “This was five minutes in the original musical. I said, ‘You need to do this story!’ ” As if the Winans family’s own story were not interwoven deeply enough into “Born for This,” two of its stars are Winanses, too. BeBe Winans’s nephew and niece, Juan and Deborah Joy Winans, will play BeBe and CeCe.
BeBe Winans still recalls those years at “The PTL Club” as deeply meaningful, even in the more traumatic times, when he came up against racism. A white cameraman, he said, confessed to him once that he’d been brought up to hate black people but that BeBe had helped to change his heart. “I’m 19 and this man is 37,” Winans recalled. “I found out that love was more powerful than hatred. What a great thing to learn.”
The show runs July 1 to Aug. 28 at Arena’s Kreeger Theater. Information about ticket sales will be released at a later date.
See Director Charles Randolph-Wright & Motown Founder Barry Gordy discuss Motown at the London launch event. Motown the Musical will hit the London stage in February, 2016.
“Motown The Musical” director Charles Randolph-Wright and award-winning producer Kevin McCollum of “Hand to God” talk to Rev. Jacqui Lewis about their work and how stage narratives are stories of hope and faith.
NBC announced that it is producing an eight-hour miniseries about love stories on the Underground Railroad, with Stevie Wonder serving as executive producer.
The miniseries, titled Freedom Run, is an adaptation of Betty DeRamus’s 2005 book Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories From the Underground Railroad. It will focus on three “specific epic journeys and love stories, each based on actual people,” according to NBC.
The miniseries will be written by B. Swibel, Adam Westbrook, and Charles Randolph-Wright, who will also executive produce. Per NBC, DeRamus’s book is also being developed as a stage musical for which Swibel, Westbrook, and Randolph-Wright are writing the book and Wonder is attached to compose the score.
Longtime York funeral home owner Isaac “Ike” Wright died early Monday morning after a long battle with cancer. He was 65.
Wright has run Wright Funeral Home, now in its 100th year, as his family’s business and the city’s oldest black-owned company.
He was far more than a businessman, though.
His generosity with the community and families, taking care of people of any economic and social station, was well-known not just in York, but throughout the region, said York Mayor Eddie Lee.
A tall man with an ever-present smile, Lee said, Wright was larger than life.
“Ike Wright’s compassion, his generosity, his way of dealing with people his whole life, showed so many people the way to be a friend,” Lee said.
Wright was a lifelong advocate for York, generous with community and volunteer organizations all his life.
The Rev. Anthony Johnson, former NAACP president and pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, who worked for Wright for the past decade at the funeral home, said York has lost an icon.
“Ike Wright truly was a great man,” he said.
York has lost a leader who helped shape the city, said Charles Johnson, a longtime friend.
“Ike Wright was a fixture, a legend, in York,” Johnson said. “He will be missed by so many people.”
Wright’s daughter, Bridget, who works in the family business, said arrangements for the funeral are pending.
Through the past four decades, Ike Wright was always generous with others in the funeral business, said Kenny Bratton of Bratton Funeral Home in York.
“Any time I ever needed anything, Ike Wright was there for me or anyone else,” Bratton said. “York has lost a man who loved his city, and his city loved him. He was not just well known, he was well respected.”
Wright was a longtime member of the Western York County branch of the NAACP and took an active, leadership role in the politics and social concerns that affected people.
“He took me under his wing and was a supporter when I went into politics,” said state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, a second-generation funeral director himself. “Our families were always very close and supported each other. Many of us who knew him well called him ‘Ikey.’
“Ikey in his business had the highest standards, and in his life he had the highest standards. He will be greatly missed.”
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BY ANDREW DYS
Ruth Johnson, an English teacher and activist for racial equality in western York County for decades, and mother of award winning writer/director Charles Randolph-Wright, died Thursday. She was 85.
Johnson taught for years at the segregated Jefferson School in York, then at York Comprehensive High School after schools were integrated. During all those years and afterward, she was an activist with the NAACP and other groups and helped create community groups that grappled with race problems in York and other rural parts of York County.
“For people in York and western York County, Ruth Johnson was not just a teacher, she was an inspiration,” said Steve Love, a former student and lifelong friend, and the former Western York NAACP president. “She pushed people to try to achieve their dreams and dare to be great.”
Johnson kept a sign on her wall all her life, even in her last years in assisted care after a stroke, that read: “Average is not good enough.”
“Ruth Johnson was a great woman whose impact on all students in York, and her community, will last forever,” said longtime friend John Spratt, the former congressman from York.
Johnson’s high expectations for greatness among students led her only son to the highest artistic honors in America. Charles Randolph-Wright, who grew up in York before heading off to college at Duke University and then to New York City to launch his career, is a director of such Broadway hits as “Motown” and “Blue,” among others. “Motown” is scheduled to be performed at the Belk Theater in Charlotte in August.
Her son, known throughout the world for his creativity and specifically his portrayal of the black experience, said that without his mother, none of that would have been possible. “My mother was the one great influence on my life, the one who had that profound vision for me – and so many others,” Randolph-Wright said Friday. “She had a great influence on people and her community, state and country.”
Randolph-Wright is establishing a yearly scholarship in his mother’s name for a student from York Comprehensive High School. “Her life’s work was to show the thrilling aspirations that learning brings to all of us,” Randolph-Wright said.
A public viewing is Wednesday from 6-8 and a service is Thursday at 1 at Wesley United Methodist Church, with Spratt, York Mayor Eddie Lee, and other dignitaries speaking about Johnson’s impact on York and York County.
Playwright Charles Randolph-Wright redefines the boundaries of romance during wartime.
Charles Randolph-Wright can’t believe his good fortune. He’s about to introduce the world premiere of Love in Afghanistan at Arena Stage; he’s already getting overtures for screen adaptations of the play; and he recently watched musical luminaries Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Smoky Robinson rush the stage to praise his direction of Motown on Broadway. “The curtain call for Motown was one of those inexplicable moments—one you hope to come remotely close to once in your career,” says Randolph-Wright, who, along with producing for film and TV, is a resident playwright at Arena Stage.
Love in Afghanistan is his ninth work for Arena—previous productions have included Blue and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined—and it’s by far the most daring. He read stories in The New York Times and other publications a few years ago about the Afghan practice of bacha posh, where Afghan families without sons will pick a daughter to behave and dress like a boy to gain honor and, for poor families, to obtain work. “I was mesmerized,” he says. “I wondered what happens when girls—who pretend to be boys from the age of 5—grow up. How do they navigate the world?” For most, the question is cocktail-party fodder. For Randolph-Wright, the issue is chased and cornered until it becomes a new play.
Because of suggested travel restrictions to Afghanistan, Randolph-Wright was unable to visit the country while writing. Instead, “Afghanistan came to me,” he says. “It’s one of the most inspiring things that’s ever happened to me. I’ve met so many people—Afghans and Western journalists—one of the most influential was a young woman living in the Midwest named Faheema who was bacha posh. She allowed me to see into her remarkable world.”
The play’s protagonists—Duke and Roya, a Western hip-hop artist and an interpreter who endured bacha posh—tangle with love amid war’s upheaval. Randolph-Wright explains, however, that the play’s title isn’t merely a reflection of human adoration. “It’s about love of country, too,” he says. “Most of us look at Afghanistan as over there. And it’s not—it’s now part of us. If I can’t change the world, I want to influence the people who can. DC is the perfect place for this play. Art is the salve that heals our wounds.”
The men of Motown the Musical now have absolutely no excuse not to look perfectly turned out at all times: BBraxton, the men’s grooming company founded by Tony nominee Brenda Braxton, has been named official barber for the hit musical. The new collaboration was inspired by the 30-year friendship between Braxton and Motown director Charles Randolph-Wright, who were castmates in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls.