Sometime last year I was settled into my habitual low-key Sunday evening in front of 60 Minutes, when Leslie Stahl introduced me to Vy Higgenson, the founder and director of The Mama Foundation for the Arts. There followed one of the most energizing half-hours I’ve ever spent in front of a television set. It got me up out of my chair, and left me with a joyful lump in my throat, struggling to hide tears, speechless, and emotionally exhausted. Such is the power of great Gospel music. The story culminated with selections from a concert by Harlem’s Gospel for Teens Choir. I’m not especially a religious person, but I’ve loved the passion of Gospel music ever since as a lad I heard the voice of Mahalia Jackson. And as a career teacher, I’ve always been a sucker for kids who are completely dedicated to coming as close to perfection as possible with their newfound skills. I admit I have a tendency to overreact to this kind of thing. Maybe I’m just a sentimental easy mark. A marching band will do it to me every time, as will a completely focused and willing-to-be-vulnerable young actor, dancer, singer, ballplayer, or a completely honest writer.
Ranging in age from 12 to 19, many of the boys and girls in the Gospel for Teens Choir have been pulled in off the street — “at risk” kids, life’s losers, or at least so labeled. But finding their voices in this music has meant finding themselves, learning what it takes to walk past their doubts and low self-esteem and fear of the future. With the help of some obviously inspirational teachers, they have tapped into huge, previously undiscovered reservoirs of self-discipline. The result is some of the most inspirational, passion-filled, and beautifully rendered music I’ve ever heard. Joan and I immediately determined that if these folks were going to be performing the next time we were in New York, we’d be there.
And so we extended last week’s planned New York visit to be sure we’d be there. And on Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves in the audience in the Dempsey Theater, in an old school auditorium up on 127th Street in Harlem. Mama I Want to Sing is a musical play, performed in front of a gospel choir, and narrated by Vy Higginsen, based on the life and career of her sister, Doris Troy. Known as “Mama Soul,” Troy became an internationally successful r&b artist in the 60’s. But of course it’s about so much more than that. It’s a celebration of African American music, from its gospel roots through rhythm and blues, jazz and pop, and it was specifically intended to honor and preserve those genres, and to inspire younger generations to carry them on.
Many of the young singers are the best of the Gospel for Teens Choir, and the five elder cast members are mighty impressive singers and dancers. They all were doing what I most love to see in any stage performance – sharing their own passion and genuine joy with their audience, rather than performing a routine at us. In the lead role as Ruth is Vy’s own daughter, young Ahmaya Knoelle Higginson (Yes, the spelling difference is apparently intentional). But don’t think for a moment that she was given the role because of family connections. She has inherited and acquired a fantastic talent for singing, and her wide vocal range would be the envy of any opera singer. You’d be hard pressed to top this level of talent, energy and seriously focused discipline anywhere downtown on Broadway.
Because of the unusual casting, the full title of this show is Mama I Want to Sing: the Next Generation. Vy and her husband wrote the first version in 1979, and saw it promptly rejected by every New York producer. They went on to produce and open the show themselves in 1983. Since then, it has toured all over the world and become the longest-running black off-Broadway musical in American history. A film based on the play, with Ciara and Patti LaBelle, is available on DVD. Meanwhile, live performances continue 127th Street, every Saturday thru June 2, and then some. A new musical, Sing, Harlem, Sing, also starts later this month, and the Gospel for Teens Choir’s “End of Semester Concert” will take place on May 18. All proceeds go to support the Mama Foundation and Gospel for Teens. It’s a worthy cause, and a more than worthy payoff for supporting it.
On the train back from New York on Sunday, Joan and I reflected on the impact of our getaway together. We’d seen five plays and two movies in five days. Undeniably, Death of a Salesman was one of the most powerful dramatic productions ever in my audience experience. But in the end, we agreed that the week had been more about music than drama. How often do you get concerts by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and a dynamic Gospel ensemble all jammed into one short week? We count ourselves blessed.