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Rousing reception by Philadelphia audience re-affirms producer’s mission

(Photo Left) Noted author, playwright, radio and TV personality Vy Higginsen. Photo courtesy of the Mama Foundation.

Although Vy Higginsen’s family has lived on the same block in Harlem for more than 100 years, the off-Broadway producer characterized her most recent visit to Philadelphia by saying, “this was coming home.”

Higginsen was welcomed back with cheers and adoration, following the staging of her latest production, “ALIVE 55+ and Kicking” at Triumph Baptist Church, 1648 Hunting Park Ave. The performance was part of a benefit for youth service programs for the church and for the Philadelphia Frontiers organization.

Higginsen’s relationship with the city and its musical theater fans traces back more than 30 years, to 1983, when the musical “Mama I Want to Sing,” about an R&B singer with roots in the church choir, opened off-Broadway.

At the time, Higginsen and her co-creator Ken Wydro, were plagued by fears of whether the play was good enough, of whether it could attract an audience.

“Just when we were ready to give up, the buses from Philadelphia came,” Higginsen recalled. “They filled up that theater, so help me God. It was amazing. It was historic. … And then y’all came to us for years. It’s Philadelphia that helped make us the longest running black, off-Broadway musical in American history.”

“Mama I Want to Sing” played 2,500 performances in New York and 1,000 more throughout the country, as well as in Europe and Japan.

“ALIVE 55+ and Kicking,” stopped in Philadelphia between visits in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Once again, Higginsen found a topic to which her audience can relate.

“I’ve been working on this in my mind for a number of years, about what happens to talented people after a certain age, because we’re a youth-oriented culture,” she explained. “It’s like why stop singing? Why do we stop painting? Why do we stop doing the things that we enjoy and that make us feel good?”

During auditions for the roles of the protagonist’s mother and father in “Mama I Want to Sing,” Higginsen recalls, “What struck me was the number of people who showed up for the auditions, who were so talented. And I’m like, now wait a minute. I can’t hire everybody. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t impressed by them.”

She continued, “I had been collecting stories over time about our African-American experience. So I told [the actors], I could not take everybody, but I did say that I’m going to write a show just for you. I wanted them to go out of there knowing they had made an impression on me.”

“ALIVE 55+ and Kicking,” shares tales and talents of everyone from working single mothers, to an ordained minister, to an ex-offender.

A former New York radio personality, and an ordained minister herself, Higginsen is now founder and executive director of the Mama Foundation for the Arts.

“Part of my personal mission is to overcome the many obstacles that block us from having this experience of the history and impact of Black music.” She says. “I feel like my mission was accomplished in Philadelphia.”

 

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Sheila Simmons - Contributor

Sheila Simmons brings many years of writing and communications experience to her work for Liberty City Press. She began her professional writing career at the Philadelphia Daily News, where she covered Business, City Hall and Education.

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