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Sixteen performers, all over the age of 55, share the songs and stories of their generation
When Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro set out to find mature performers for their uplifting show Alive! 55+ and Kickin', now at Harlem's Dempsey Theatre, they weren't just looking for solid singers. They wanted compelling stories, too. The two-act revue features a hit parade of songs from eras gone by, from hymns ("Glory, Glory, Hallelujah") to Motown classics ("Unchained Melody") to show tunes ("The Impossible Dream") to pop chart toppers ("I Will Always Love You"). But instead of being sung by seasoned pros, they're delivered with palpable emotion by everyday AARP-eligible folks, many of whom have battled incredible challenges, including incarceration, illiteracy, and addiction.
Higgensen -- best known in theatre circles for co-writing the musical Mama, I Want to Sing with her husband, Wydro -- co-created Alive! with her spouse because she worried that the voices of her black Baby Boomer peers were dying out. "The sounds and stories you hear on our stage are so rich and full, and yet absent from the landscape of today," she says. "These voices carry our history. I thought if we took the time to hear them before they were gone, it would be a valuable pass-along to every generation following."
Instead of putting out a traditional casting notice, Higgensen and Wydro, who also directs, spread the word about auditions through non-industry channels. They made announcements on WBLS, the radio station where Higgensen worked as NYC's first female primetime DJ back in the '70s, and at performances mounted by their music education organization, Mama Foundation for the Arts. "We were really anxious to give ordinary civilians a chance to be onstage," says Wydro. "We realized a lot of these older people don't have a place to sing beyond church. They came to us with a burning desire to perform. This generation deserves a chance to tell their stories and sing their songs, and there's a healing effect on both those telling and those listening."
Indeed, though Alive! is not a religious show, there is something cathartic about the experience. The personal stories of struggle are compelling -- so much so that 60 Minutes did an in-depth segment on the show back in January that's helped pack the house ever since. Once you hear a few of the tales you understand why. Seventy-five-year-old janitor Matthew Brown was an alcoholic who didn't learn to read or write until age 50, then went on to win a few writing competitions. Theo Harris spent 40 years in prison, and during that time, he found God, married his wife Phyllis (also in the show), and conquered his longtime drug habit.
One of the most breathtaking moments arrives when Deborah Bingham performs her powerhouse rendition of "I Will Always Love You" about losing her son to cancer. "My direction to that was, 'You never had a chance to say goodbye to him,'" says Wydro. "'This is your chance right now. That's the subtext you're responding to.'"
Bingham, who's 56, was initially reluctant to even audition for Alive for two reasons. "I'm a nurse and teacher, and my schedule is tight," she says. "Also, Ken and Vy explained they were having people tell their personal stories, and I said, 'Oh no! I don't like people in my business.'" But her then-boyfriend (now-fiancé) convinced her to go for it. "Singing is something I've always enjoyed doing," she says. "If I could make a living at it, I would do it in a heartbeat. This whole live experience has been great for me. I do this for church every week, but that's different. My whole life, everything I've done has been for everybody else; it's been great to do this for me."
Lest anyone think Alive is just a random collection of confessions, Higgensen and Wydro explain they were meticulous about crafting the script. While many of the 16 cast members share their own travails, Higgensen and Wydro had certain songs and subjects in mind from the outset. "We had themes we wanted to cover, like overcoming incarceration, a broken marriage, single motherhood, and illness," Wydro says. "We chose specific people for each story and song to make the performances personal. The sequencing of the script, how the songs lead into one another, that was our biggest challenge but also creatively exhilarating."
Considering the fraught state of race relations in this country, Higgensen believes the show's positive message is particularly important. "There are so few opportunities for black actors to tell non-stereotypical stories," she says. "The ones you see on the six o'clock news give you the wrong impression of an entire culture and community." Adds Wydro, "Getting to know these people and making them comfortable enough to take a chance on their own emotional stuff was amazing. They're really investing themselves in the material. There's a certain transformative power when they're singing. You'll never look at a janitor or nurse the same way again."
Raven Snook is the associate editor of TDF Stages
Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo: Deborah Bingham in Alive!