"We opened in New York (in 1983) and the word just spread," said Vy Higginsen of her gospel/rock musical, "Mama, I Want to Sing."
"We didn't have an advertising budget. We didn't go to the critics. People liked it--and they told their friends. Soon, audiences were coming from five states. We started out with four shows (each week) and kept selling out. So we went to five, then six, seven, eight, nine and finally, 10."
It was then that Higginsen began to suspect that she and husband Ken Wydro (who co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced) had a hit. Now, in addition to its continuing Off-Off-Broadway run, the play is represented in a national touring company, opening Wednesday at the Beverly Theatre.
Set in the early '50s, "Mama" tells the story of Higginsen's sister, singer Doris Troy, and the early resistance she meets (especially from her minister father) when she begins courting the secular, "sinful" world of popular music.
"I spent a lot of time in the communications business," Higginsen said, "and I got a chance to interview some of the greatest women--in business, politics and entertainment. I found that they had a very similar story to my own family. I heard people like Roberta Flack say that she grew up in a church. And Aretha Franklin's father was a minister, Whitney Houston's mother (singer Cissy Houston) leads the church choir.
"So although the story was (about) my own family, it was a lot of other people's stories, too. Whether it's 'Mama, I want to use my pencil' or 'Mama, I want to use my brain,' we encourage people to uncover and recover all the talent they have inside--and use it."
She extends that credo to herself.
"I believe in the power of good," she said. "When I wrote this show, I didn't even know what was directing me--I just knew it was something I had to do. Where it was going to go, how it was going to turn out, I didn't know. But look what happened: something wonderful . And it's the kind of success that spills over to other people."
(Recently, she and Wydro formed Reach Inc., an entertainment outfit offering "probably the largest employment of black entertainers, 52 weeks a year.")
Although Higginsen herself continues to perform a small part in "Mama," it's clear that the more far-reaching producing duties are closer to her heart these days. New York born and reared, she parlayed a start in fashion merchandising to an advertising sales position at Ebony magazine, a radio show in New York (offering fashion and beauty tips), a stint as a prime-time disc jockey and, later, publisher of her own magazine, Unique New York (on "people, places and life styles").
"I do see myself as a pioneer," she said, "and I don't mind being an example of what can happen when there's talent and commitment and hard work." Nor does she shy away from the inevitable "color" questions.
"The show was written with the black consumer audience in mind," she said. "I became an expert on the black consumer audience while I was working for Ebony. I have deep respect for it, I understand it; I know what it likes and dislikes. And I know that it's a tough audience, far more sophisticated than it's given credit for. So I knew that if it ("Mama") was good, if that audience liked it, then other people would like it. And this has proven to be a fact. Because after we'd been running two years, Time magazine named it one of the 10 best plays of 1984--and right away, the complexion began to change.
"Music is universal," she stated. "I'll show you a picture of my (white) husband, my baby. Color is not an issue. This (material) is neither black nor white, male nor female. When music's good, it hits a part of you. And this is a generation that grew up on Motown, good American black music. We danced to it, made love to it, held hands to it. It's had a profound effect."
The religious roots, Higginsen feels, are equally present. "When you look at the (popular) music that came out (of that time), it's got the same beat, the same tempos. The lyrics were different, but the music was often the same. And you can hear that in this show: How gospel came out of the church and into the nightclubs."
And into the theaters.