BeBe Winans and director Charles Randolph-Wright chat about their musical, Born for This

BeBe Winans stages his life story—now playing at the Alliance Theatre—and humanizes his mentors Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker
Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story
Photo illustration by Elias Stein; Winans by Ralph Dominguez/Globe Photos, Inc.; Bakkers by AP Photo/Lou Krasky

When a new musical based on the life of BeBe Winans makes its world premiere at the Alliance this month, theatergoers will be transported back to the Reagan-era meteoric rise and scandal-riddled fall of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, cowritten and composed by the Grammy-winning R&B and gospel star himself, tells the unlikely story of how Winans and his sister CeCe were plucked by the Bakkers from teenage obscurity in Detroit to perform on the then all-white Praise the Lord Network in Pineville, North Carolina.

The musical, which Winans and his cowriter and director Charles Randolph-Wright spent years fine-tuning, has already earned approval from Oprah, who led the audience in a standing ovation when she attended an early reading. Now Winans and Randolph-Wright are hoping that it will join the handful of productions, including the Tony-winning The Color Purple and Aida, that have made the jump from the Alliance’s stage to the Great White Way.

Why Atlanta for the premiere?
Randolph-Wright It needed to be somewhere Southern. So I called [Alliance Theatre artistic director] Susan Booth and said, “We need you, we need the Alliance, and we need Atlanta.”

How did coming of age in the South affect your work together?
Randolph-Wright I grew up in York, South Carolina, 40 minutes from Pineville. For us, it’s an opportunity to show what happens when these separate worlds—black and white, North and South—come together.

Winans Charles has always understood this story and why it’s a uniquely Southern story. I remember saying to him, “Charles, we didn’t experience any threats on that show.” He told me, “Boy, please. It was the South!” At first I thought he was taking liberties, but it turns out those liberties were realities. [In the midst of working on the musical] I was having dinner with Jim [Bakker], and he told me, “Oh yes, there were lots of threats.” The Bakkers had kept that from CeCe and me. I was shocked.

Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story
Juan and Deborah Joy Winans

Photograph by John Bayley Photography

BeBe’s niece and nephew, Deborah Joy and Juan Winans will be playing the parts of CeCe and BeBe. How did that casting come about?
Randolph-Wright I first saw Deborah when she came in [to audition] for Motown. [Then] BeBe said, “You should meet Deborah Joy’s brother.” He walked in, opened his mouth, and I remember thinking, “Are you s—-ing me!?” And the brother-sister relationship is just instinctual with them. The love, that bond is just there.

With everything that’s been reported about the Bakkers, how do you make them three-dimensional characters instead of caricatures?
Winans Being in the inner circle, we knew what was true and what wasn’t. Even after PTL came apart, we kept in touch, through Jim’s incarceration and Tammy’s death. They were our white parents.

Randolph-Wright Because of the scandals and the outrageous makeup, people forget the good work the Bakkers accomplished. They took a chance on two teenagers to integrate their show. Tammy had the first person with AIDS on a religious program. Early audiences were stunned because they went in thinking they were going to see a Saturday Night Live sketch. They came away having seen real people—real people with incredible issues.

You’ve said that you welcomed notes and feedback from Booth as the musical evolved. How has her feedback helped?
Randolph-Wright We were stunned by the notes she gave us on one of the first drafts. She just understood the material. You always want to create where you’re comfortable. When you have people like Susan, who may not have taken your journey but they can help you articulate it, it means a lot.

Bebe, Born for This details how you and your sister moved as teens from Detroit to North Carolina to work for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at PTL. What was that like?
Winans It was scary. CeCe was 15, and I was 17. Our father wouldn’t allow us to spend the night across the street, and here we were, going across the country! I didn’t know about the realities of the South. It was a learning experience. It was scary but also exciting.

What do you think Jim and Tammy saw in you?
Winans They saw a spark in CeCe, and I was just accompanying her. I was the babysitter. One day, PTL’s musical director asked me to ad lib on something, and Jim Bakker noticed. I think the Bakkers saw not only our talent but also our character. With their protection, they knew we had the character to face adversity.

How did coming of age in the South impact your work together on the musical?
Randolph-Wright For us, it’s a trip back home. It’s an opportunity to show people where we grew up. Our costume designer is William Ivy-Long, who has three million Tonys on his mantel and who is currently serving as the chairman of the board for the American Theatre Wing. He wanted to do this show because he’s from Rock Hill, South Carolina, which is even closer to Pineville! For all of us, the appeal of this story is the collision of cultures.

Born for This runs through May 15 at the Alliance Theatre.

This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.