BeBe Winans has had an incredible journey to becoming one of the most recognizable faces — and voices — in gospel. Now, he's putting his story into a stage musical called Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, chronicling his early days, along with sister CeCe Winans, at Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Praise the Lord Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The biographical play is a coming-of-age story that follows BeBe and CeCe from Detroit to Charlotte — from their family-oriented Black church to televised evangelism — and explores the origins of one of the greatest and most successful gospel duos to ever live. Nearly a decade in the making, the musical celebrated its world premiere on April 23 at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, and then traveled to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage from July 1 to August 28.
We caught up with BeBe between shows to talk about the production, how race relations have evolved in America since the time depicted in the musical and his old friend Whitney Houston.
Where did the idea to put your life into a musical come from?
Well, it was nowhere on my mind, [but started with a] conversation between me and Roberta Flack almost 10 years ago. In that conversation she detoured and said, "BeBe, by the way, when are you going write that musical about you and your sister and your family? It's a musical that you got to hurry up and get to it, and it's a movie." I looked at the phone and said to myself, "Where did that come from? Did Roberta take her medication?" After we hung up, four days later I was in Montreal and opened up my laptop and it was like a faucet came on. I sat there and in the next hour or so I had wrote the first draft that is now Born for This 10 years later.
Why did it take 10 years to mount the production?
One of the things I always believed was that in order to be the best in anything, you need to learn. For 10 years, I stayed in New York and went to musicals and went to plays and met that community and respected that community and teamed up with that community. Charles Randolph Wright, who is the co-writer and co-director of Borfn For This, is a very accomplished director. At the time we met, he had just been given the opportunity to direct Motown: The Musical. I had also been in some Broadway plays as an actor, but as a producer there was a lot to learn and as a playwright there was a lot to learn.
Walk us through what the show is about.
It's a coming of age for my sister [CeCe Winans] and me. It picks up when we left Detroit, I was 17 and she was 15 and we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s when we joined up with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and became a part of their television ministry. It's about enduring all those things, being scared, moving away from home for the first time, dealing with the issues that come with that. The insecurities, the mistakes, the racism, and all of those things that life presents you. It talks about how we became a duet. People know our music, but a lot of them don’t know our story. Jim put us together as a duet, and we had to go back and tell our other family members we had a group with that it's no longer that group, it’s now Bebe and CeCe.
What were some of the big changes you experienced moving from Detroit to Charlotte?
I can answer that in several ways: sweet potato pie to pumpkin pie. Collard greens to squash. There was a lot of things that I did not know because in Detroit it was a predominately Black experience, whereas in Charlotte it was predominantly a white experience. My friends went from Black to white. I love people, I love hanging with people, but I went from playing basketball to white water rafting. What is white water rafting? I had never heard of it. Mountain climbing, that's a game? Who are you people? It was an incredible transition. Even church was different. My Black experience was that we were in church Sunday morning for nine hours. [Cece and I] went from nine-hour church to 45 minutes. It started on time and ended on time, and it was like "OK, this is different."
You mentioned racism — was that a part of it when you moved into a white church in the South?
[We were] definitely welcomed by Jim and Tammy Faye, but there were other people that we didn't feel welcomed by. That’s not just a white and Black situation but a Black and Black situation as well. You'll always have people who love you and people who don't — so you have to get used to that.
A lot of people will have a problem with that kind of acceptance in today’s racial climate. Do you feel that kind of “tolerance” for racism still applies today?
I laugh at a lot of things, not because it’s funny but I learned that I had a choice in every circumstance. I could either be angry at racism, or laugh at racism. Laughter is a medication like no other. I think we're fooling ourselves and I think we're at a place where we have to acknowledge that this does exist and that's the beginning of really finding answers. I was on an airplane, and [I was talking to] a guy sitting next to me. His name was Chris and he was 65, and I asked him, “How many Black friends do you have?” and he said, "None. I’ve never had dinner or lunch with a Black person." I asked him, "How can you understand Ferguson or anything when it comes to the protests?" He said, "I can’t," and I said, "Go get a Black friend."
What side of your history will fans see that they don't know in the show?
I think it’s almost all of it. I'm a very private person and I come from a big family and so I didn't really need outside friends, I had all the friends I needed in my family. Born for This gives you an inside look at how we were raised. It talks about the loss of one of my favorite brothers, and how and why that devastated me.
Speaking of family today, Whitney Houston's birthday just passed. I know you two were close — she even has a part in Born for This. How would she have felt about this musical?
I sent out an Instagram on her birthday. It’s always automatic. This musical, I know Whitney would be at almost every performance, she would be laughing, she would be cracking up because she knows the story. I realized, “Gosh, I miss her so much.” I miss her phone calls, I miss her presence. When a Whitney song comes on the radio, I turn it off now. I can't listen to too many songs because it makes me sad she's not here. We always looked forward to growing old together. So it's a celebration of someone I love, but in that celebration, someone I miss terribly. The loss of Whitney definitely altered my life for the rest of my life.
Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story is playing at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage until August 28.
Also, take a look at a throwback clip of BeBe on Bobby Jones Gospel, above.
(Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images)