Deborah Joy Winans on playing her aunt in Alliance Theatre’s Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story

The actress and her brother, Juan, will portray their aunt and uncle, CeCe and BeBe Winans. How the musical revealed some surprising truths about her family.
Deborah Joy and her brother Juan Winans play their aunt and uncle, CeCe and BeBe Winans, in "Born For This" at the Alliance Theatre
Deborah Joy and her brother Juan Winans play their aunt and uncle, CeCe and BeBe Winans, in “Born For This” at the Alliance Theatre

Photo by Greg Mooney. Courtesy of the Alliance Theatre.

Audiences may notice a familiar last name among the cast members when Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story premieres at the Alliance Theatre this month. Portraying BeBe and CeCe are another pair of siblings, Juan and Deborah Joy Winans, the niece and nephew of the famed gospel singers.

“I’m sure they could get anybody who could sing and who could maybe favor them, looks wise. But to have family makes it special,” says Deborah Joy. “It’s just brought a whole element of making it very real.” We recently spoke with her about the role, what it’s like working alongside her real-life brother, and the surprising truths that the musical revealed about her family’s history.

One could say that you and your brother were also born to play these roles. How did you get involved?
I had met [director] Charles Randolph-Wright at an audition maybe six, seven years prior, and then my uncle BeBe had asked about me when they began planning the first workshop of the play at Boston’s Emerson College. I have an MFA in theater, and it just be would be one less thing to worry about. I was honored to do it.

But when the next workshop came around in 2014, and they asked me to come back, I had doubts. Singing was never my thing. I just thought, This is way too hard. I can’t be CeCe. Nobody can be CeCe—she’s amazing! But my husband told me, “I know it’s challenging, but you can do it.”

Then, about two weeks before the workshop, my uncle called me and told me that they wanted to cast my brother Juan as BeBe. I immediately knew he would be fantastic. He looks just like [BeBe], and he’s a wonderful singer—to me he has one of the greatest voices in the world. And it put me at ease knowing that he would be there. I knew the singing would be a challenge, but I also knew Juan could help me. At that workshop, it just clicked.

Has the show given you a new perspective on your uncle and aunt?
It’s been amazing to learn everything that happened them so many years ago. I grew up knowing the music, and just loving them as family. But to hear everything that they’d gone through . . . they didn’t just start out singing together. It’s really remarkable to me to see how they came through so many challenges and got to where they are today.

I think audience members will get the essence of them, these singers that they’ve fallen in love with over the years. And a sense of the essence of Whitney Houston, who was one of their best friends, and was like family to us. They will feel these people, and I think that’s something great. Because they’re not just characters, they’re real beloved people.

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker are played by Chaz Pofahl and Kirsten Wyatt.
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker are played by Chaz Pofahl and Kirsten Wyatt.

Photo by Greg Mooney. Courtesy of the Alliance Theatre.

What about their relationship with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? Do you think audiences will be surprised by that story?
Learning about their relationship with BeBe and CeCe, and all the great things that the Bakkers did for them—you understand the stance that they took [supporting the Bakkers]. I think that a sense of loyalty is something that a lot of people lack, just period in life. Everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes. No one’s saying that you don’t have to pay for them—you do. But it didn’t change the relationship that they had built with them all those years.

If it wasn’t for Jim and Tammy Faye, maybe eventually BeBe and CeCe would have started singing together. But I think that God has a plan, and he used the Bakkers to bring my aunt and uncle together and to catapult them into the success that they had. A few years ago when they got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, BeBe told us, “There’s no way that I could receive a star and not have Jim Bakker there.” Because years and years ago, Jim told them that he just knew they were going to be stars and he was so proud of them. They just loved them through it all. They didn’t forget what they’d done for them. And to see their relationship today . . . BeBe is over the moon knowing that Jim is going to be able to come to opening night.

It’s beautiful to hear that story, to learn how they really were. Because my aunt and uncle were just teenagers—just kids. And the Bakkers really were like another set of parents. They really did love them like they were their own children. And you can’t just let that go.

What’s been your favorite thing about this role so far?
The family connection makes it special. It’s not just that Juan and I are family, but we’re also family to the people we’re playing. And we’re not the family that’s like, “Oh yeah, I saw my aunt last year, and it was cool.” We spend so much time with each other. I know who they are, and so we’re able to bring that history.

I’m also shooting a new show for OWN called Greenleaf, and recently someone who knows my aunt very well saw one of the scenes, and said, “Oh my God, how’d you get CeCe on here? She looks so good!” Without even realizing it, I’ve picked up her mannerisms because I’ve watched her and heard her and spent time with her my whole life. And being able to do it with my brother, it’s been not just a relief, but a joy. We’ve been building each other up. Being able to play CeCe has been such an honor, but to be able to do it with my brother has just been a huge, huge blessing.