BOTTOM LINE: The Gospel for Teens choir is an impassioned group of young people who traverse their lives with the aid of gospel music. The piece follows the emotional trajectory of the choir from auditions, to rehearsals, to performances, and ultimately to understanding.
Gospel music is almost a part of my blood. It seems I came from the womb understanding three part harmony; nevertheless it has remained a part because it continues to inspire me. Walking in the “golden corridor” also known as 127th and Lenox on my way to We Are! I noticed how inundated the history was. As an African American, gospel music has both cultural and aesthetic relevance today, with recognizable influences in every music format today (Gavin Degraw’s “Best I Ever Had” is essentially a secularized church service). That truth has justified “Mama Vy” Higginson’s vision for Gospel for Teens, which is teach the younger generations the music before we forget it. Assisted by her powerhouse vocalist daughter Noelle and the equally virtuosic Elijah Ahmed, Mama Vy touches teen lives.
The structure of We Are! is less of a play and more of an experience. The story revolves around the actual students who attend Gospel for Teens starting from their audition to their first competition. The audition portion is solidly driven by the teens’ personalities, which varied from nervous to outright ham. The participants’ enthusiasm propels the whole piece, actually, because the plot is still under construction. Still, placing the action in the choir’s “day to day” was both charming and effective. The production is technically based on the group’s engrossing CBS special a couple of years ago, which also highlights the participants’ lives in and out of the program.
The production is still developing and therefore a little troubled, but that’s to be expected. We Are! is great for the community and those in attendance will feel the spirit indeed. The show doesn’t read as a major musical, but those who will enjoy it will see the characters through the format. The kids are really engaging. Their stories range from a physically disabled belter to an alcohol-dependent fifteen year old, but within each is the redemptive quality of a sounding board like Mama Vy. And Mama Vy helps her kids as much as she does the audience. Acting as a narrator, Vy Higginson navigates the piece for us and as the production gains more polish it will be interesting to see what happens next. Whatever the status of the production, though, as a gospel lover I was invested from beginning to end and so will anyone into a story about children who can sing well.
(We Are! plays at The Dempsey Theater, 127 West 127th Street, through November 23, 2013. Remaining performances are 11/2 at 5PM and 11/23 at 5PM.)