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Myrna Gershon, Lesley Stahl, Freddie Gershon, Vy Higginsen

*Some thirty years ago Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro wrote and produced the now internationally-acclaimed Mama, I Want to Sing gospel musical that tells the story of a talented young girl who dreams of leaving her church choir to pursue a life in popular music, despite strong objections from her mother.

A tribute to the many African American artists with church choir roots who rose to fame in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, creator Higginsen based her musical on the life of her sister Doris Troy whose 1963 hit “Just One Look” launched her to international fame.  The show — featuring original music by Wesley Naylor —  opened in Harlem in 1983 and since then has become the “little red engine that could” of Off-Off Broadway productions.

On Saturday, March 23, 2013 Mama I Want To Sing celebrated its 30th year with a special celebratory performance at The Dempsey Theater, 127 West 127th Street (between Lenox and 7th Avenues), Harlem, New York to benefit Gospel for Teens, a program of the Mama Foundation for the Arts’ School for Gospel, Jazz, and R&B Arts.  The gala event raised $100,000 for the Foundation ($90,000 has already been received/promised, and at least $10,000 more is expected before the final tally).

The evening’s performance included musical highlights from Mama Foundation productions Mama, I Want to Sing and Sing, Harlem, Sing!, as well as a performance from the award-winning Gospel for Teens Choir — the subject of an award-winning “60 Minutes” feature story that followed the program’s students for a year — from auditions to their victory at their first competition, the open division at The Pathmark Gospel Choir Competition of Harlem, held at The Apollo in 2011.

During the program, Lesley Stahl (Emmy winner for her “60 Minutes” profile on Gospel for Teens) was honored with the vision award for her contributions to journalism and for her support of Gospel for Teens Choir.  The story earned two 2012 Emmy Awards, including outstanding feature story in a news magazine as well as a 2012 National Association of Black Journalists salute to excellence award.

The spiritually uplifting evening culminated in a spontaneous church-inspired closing with R&B divas Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick, Angie Stone, Valerie Simpson and Crystal Aiken individually joining the Gospel for Teens Choir in a rousing version of “This Little Light of Mine” that brought the sold-out crowd to its feet.

The stellar post-performance party was a celebration of the culture and community of Harlem.  The party took place at The Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building on 125th Street with many of the neighborhoods finest restaurants donating food.  This delicious “Taste of Harlem” included signature dishes from Red Rooster Harlem, Sylvia’s, Spoonbread, Corner Social, Chez Lucien, Jacob’s Soul Food, Melba’s, and many more.  Make My Cake’s president Aliyyah Baylor was the premier baker for the swinging Mama, I Want to Sing soiree.

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Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick, Valerie Simpson

The star-studded evening was attended by journalists Lesley Stahl; recording artists Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick, Valerie Simpson, Chuck Jackson, Angie Stone, Crystal Aikin and rapper Beau Bostic; actor Hinton Battle, Tony Award-winning choreographer George Faison; designers Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent; producer Damon Dash; WNBA’s Amber Harris; cake master Aliyyah Baylor; Red Rooster’s Marcus Samuelsson and Andrew Chapman; Congressman Charles B. Rangel, Senator Bill Perkins, Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright and Council Member Inez Dickens; and many others.

The gala honorary benefit committee included Lesley Stahl, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan (who won the prestigious Capitol Radio Listener’s Poll Award for London’s Best Actress for her performances in Mama, I Want To Sing in the West End), Cissy Houston (who appeared in Higginsen’s production of This Is My Song at Madison Square Garden), Shirley Caesar (who appeared in Mama, I Want To Sing at the Theater at Madison Square Garden), Dionne Warwick, Valerie Simpson, and Higginsen.

The 30th Anniversary of Mama, I Want to Sing, a gala celebration to Benefit The Mama Foundation for the Arts and the Gospel for Teens Program was graciously underwritten by Myrna & Freddie Gershon and sponsored by The New York Amsterdam News, WBLS Radio, AARP, Bloomingdales, Red Rooster Harlem, Spoonbread, Sylvia’s, Corner Social, Chez Lucien, Jacob Soul Food, Melba’s.

The original production of Mama, I Want To Sing opened on March 23, 1983 in Harlem at The Heckscher Theater.  The show played for eight years and over 2,500 performances in New York (1983-1991) becoming the longest-running Black Off-Broadway musical in history.  Mama, I Want To Sing went on to play another 1,000 performances through a three-year tour across the USA; a run in London’s West End; several European tours (Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia); multiple appearances in the Caribbean; and seven tours throughout Japan.

In addition to Troy, over the years other notable performers such as Shirley Caesar, Chaka Khan, Patti Labelle, Deniece Williams, Tisha Campbell, Octavia Lambertis, Desiree Coleman, D’Atra Hicks, Stacy Francis, Ben Vereen, and Ciara have appeared in stage and film versions of Mama, I Want To Sing.

Founded in 1998, The Mama Foundation for the Arts is a non-profit 501(C)3 whose mission is to present, preserve, and promote the history and fundamentals of gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues music for current and future generations.  Inspired by the worldwide success of Mama, I Want To Sing, Higginsen established the Foundation as a cultural space in Harlem where both youths and adults have access to quality training and employment in the performing arts.

Through the Foundation’s Gospel for Teens program, musical instruction in the art form of gospel music is offered to young people between the ages of 13 and 19 at no cost, providing desperately needed support to musically gifted children and replacing arts programs taken out of many inner city schools.

Mama, I Want To Sing: The Next Generation, a revival directed by Wydro, opened at The Dempsey in April 2011 and has been thrilling audiences ever since.  The New York Times called it “Impeccable . . . Infectious . . . Irresistible.”  Mama, I Want To Sing: The Next Generation stars Ahmaya Knoelle Higginson as Doris, Bettina Pennon as Mama, Sandra Huff as Sister Carrie, Tyrone Flowers as Reverend Winters, and Elijah Ahmad Lewis as the Minister of Music.  The cast also features members of the Gospel for Teens Choir in the ensemble.

The Mama Foundation also presents Sing, Harlem, Sing! at The Dempsey.  Created by Higginsen and inspired by the many years she spent behind the microphone at major urban radio stations (such as WBLS-FM and Kiss-FM), Sing, Harlem, Sing! is a musical revue that celebrates African American music (including R&B, jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll, and gospel), urban radio, and the energy of one of the world’s most legendary neighborhoods.

The show features songs made famous by Chuck Berry, Ben E. King, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Minnie Riperton, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Etta James, and Chaka Khan, among others, in addition to traditional gospel tunes.  The tickets for both shows are available through SmartTix.com (212-868-4444) or by calling the Mama Foundation for the Arts at 212-280-1045.  For more information, please visit www.mamafoundation.org.

“It was a joy and privilege to share the 30th Anniversary celebration of Mama, I Want to Sing with you.  As I reflect on the past three decades filled with powerful music and wonderful memories, I feel gratitude and love, and I am moved to tell you so,” beamed Higginsen.  Because of your support for the Mama Foundation of the Arts and our Gospel for Teens program, I am confident that there will be many more years of music and celebrations,” beamed Higginsen.

“Because you stand with us, I am confident that this music, so rich with history and spirit, will never die.  This music will continue to help transform the lives of the young people exposed to it.  Let’s not wait another decade to celebrate.  The Foundation’s Spring season continues at The Dempsey Theater through May 11th. Please mark your calendars, May 18, for a performance featuring Gospel for Teens in concert 1:00 and 5:00 p.m. Any questions or ticket information please call me,” Higginsen added.  (Photos courtesy The Mama Foundation of the Arts)

Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.

audrey bernard

Audrey J. Bernard