Deborah Joy and Juan Winans Continue a Musical Legacy in Born for This

The family of gospel singers tell ”The BeBe Winans Story” at Arena Stage.

Music has always been a family matter for the Winans. The tribe of gospel-music artists from Detroit hit the charts in 1981 with Introducing the Winans — an album that featured brothers Ronald, Marvin, Carvin, and Michael. The new biomusical Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which comes to Arena Stage in a world-premiere coproduction with Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, follows the youngest Winans siblings, BeBe and CeCe, who unprecedentedly brought their soulful music to white audiences via Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's televangelism program The PTL Club.

BeBe Winans penned the book (with director Charles Randolph-Wright) and score for the new musical — and in true Winans fashion, he brought in his niece and nephew, Deborah Joy and Juan Winans (children of Carvin), to take on the roles of BeBe and CeCe. Surprisingly, musical collaboration is uncharted territory for the siblings, but like all Winans family projects, the journey has been filled with joyful noise.

Deborah Joy and Juan Winans, stars of Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, at Arena Stage.
Deborah Joy and Juan Winans, stars of Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, at Arena Stage.
(photos provided by Arena Stage)

Have the two of you been involved with this show from the start?

Deborah Joy: I went to school for theater, so it was kind of automatic, especially for the workshop, for my uncle and [director] Charles [Randolph-Wright] to ask me to come. It was one less thing they had to worry about. So it kind of started off like that. I think it was June or July of 2013 they did a workshop of it at Emerson in Boston. The second workshop we did was also at Emerson the very next year [and] that's when they called my brother Juan. And I think us together — it just kind of made sense.

Have you learned new things about your aunt and uncle throughout the process of doing this show?

Deborah Joy: I've absolutely learned more about them. I know them as my aunt and my uncle and I love them so much, but to see how they've affected the world is really quite incredible to me. To be able to be onstage and to hear people in the audience go, "That's my song!" It's amazing.

Did you understand growing up what significant figures in the music world they were?

Deborah Joy: Not at all. That hit me probably when I got to college.

Juan: I think at a certain age it's pretty difficult to realize the extent of their impact. I was probably around sixteen or seventeen when I really started to have a passion for music myself. That was kind of how I started to realize that they had indeed accomplished a lot and made a pretty significant legacy in the music world. I think at that point I became more appreciative of it and my admiration for them grew as musicians and as artists.

Did the two of you grow up singing together?

Deborah Joy: Not at all. [laughs]

Juan: I didn't start singing until I was about sixteen. I knew that I could sing but it was the thing I didn't want to do because I think it was so expected of all of us to in some way be musicians and singers. For me I thought, "Well, what's the furthest thing from singing that I can do?" I wanted to be an anesthesiologist. But we certainly felt the call of God in our lives to use the gift that He had given us. So at that point, around sixteen or seventeen, I started to get a little bit more serious about singing and felt maybe we could have a career in this and do something good with it.

What is it like for you both to be portraying your family members onstage?

Deborah Joy: It's been a blast. It's almost like you don't really have to act. We can just be, because we were there. We remember what it was like when our dad [Carvin Winans] stepped out and started singing "Tomorrow" at a concert. And then there's also the scene where our uncle Ronald passes away and we have to relive that every night — and that's not so easy. But we were there for so many moments, so it's been exciting and very real to do this show.

Juan: When the musical starts, BeBe is seventeen or so and he has this moment where he's really enamored by his brothers who have already hit it big and experienced success in music. So it's really easy for me to use that in developing his character, because I've been in that position. I've been that person admiring other members of my family who have already succeeded in things that I would like to do.

What have you both learned from watching BeBe and CeCe throughout your lives?

Deborah Joy: Not just watching them perform but how they've lived their lives has really been a lesson. My Auntie CeCe — I can kind of joke and say all I need to do is pray. But that's literally what she does…She lives what she sings. I've learned a lot about her in that way so in bringing her to the stage, I knew what sort of demeanor she needed to have. Her songs are very reflective of who she is in real life.

Juan: One of the biggest things we've learned from our family is just the value of integrity. Integrity in your art, integrity in your relationships, integrity in your career. As a husband and as a father I try to grow in communicating that and modeling that to my daughter.

Why is now the right time for this musical?

Juan: Deep down I think everybody knows that it's the right thing to be kind to one another, but it's not always the easiest thing. I think that's kind of where our nation is. We need to remind ourselves of what's really important — how we treat one another, how we love one another. I think this musical is telling that story in a very profound way. A lot of the things that BeBe and CeCe dealt with thirty-five years ago at PTL [Praise The Lord], leaving Detroit and moving to the south, are things that we are still dealing with all these years later. I think people will come and see that and be encouraged by it. Because you can overcome. You can choose to treat people well even if they don't treat you well. And I think people will find that message of love and of hope and really of reconciliation when they see the show.

Juan and Deborah Joy Winans as their uncle and aunt BeBe and CeCe Winans in performances at the Alliance Theatre.
Juan and Deborah Joy Winans as their uncle and aunt BeBe and CeCe Winans in performances at the Alliance Theatre.
(© Greg Mooney)

Featured In This Story