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BWW Interviews: VY HIGGINSEN Executive Director, The Mama Foundation for the Arts and Co-Creator, ALIVE! 55+ AND KICKIN'


Alive! 55+ and Kickin' is the groundbreaking musical show that features talented singers -- many who are performing professionally for the first time -- ages 55 plus. These individuals have truly outstanding vocal ability and real life stories to share. The show, created and produced by the Mama Foundation for the Arts in Harlem, was recently featured on "60 Minutes." It was the artistic vision of Vy Higginsen, CEO and Executive Director of the Foundation, which brought these unique performances to life.

Created by Ms. Higginsen in 1998, The Mama Foundation for the Arts' mission is to present, preserve, and promote the history and fundamentals of gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues music for current and future generations. The Foundation has established a cultural space in Harlem where both youth and adults have access to quality training and employment as performing artists.

Born and raised in Harlem, Higginsen is an award-winning author, publisher, playwright, media personality, and philanthropist. She was the first female advertising executive at Ebony magazine and went on to become a contributing editor for Essence. She created her own magazine, the African-American lifestyles publication Unique NY and served as its publisher and editor. She also spent a decade behind the microphone at major New York radio stations, including WBLS-FM, WWRL-AM. On camera, she has been a contributing reporter for WNBC-TV. In 1983, Higginsen co-wrote, produced and directed the classic gospel musical, Mama, I Want To Sing. The show ran for eight years becoming the longest-running African-American Off-Broadway musical in history. The musical went on to play over 1,000 more performances through a three-year tour across the USA and London, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. The show had multiple appearances in the Caribbean and seven tours throughout Japan. Higginsen also conceived and produced Sing! Mama 2, and Born to Sing: Mama 3. In March 1988, she co-produced Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson on Broadway.

We asked Higginsen about some of her earliest musical memories.

My first musical memory is the sound of music from the church as a little girl. My mother used to sing. My sisters, brothers, and grandmother sang. We would all sing together at home after dinner.

And Higginsen was fortunate to have very special mentors in her family.

My inspiration was my sister, Doris Troy, a singer/songwriter who had a hit in the 60s with the song, "Just One Look." Doris was the inspiration for my musical Mama, I Want to Sing. When I was a young, Doris took me with her on tour with her throughout Europe and I was able to watch her work on stage and off. I had the amazing opportunity to be in a recording studio with the Beatles, as Doris was signed to Apple Records at the time. Doris was my inspiration and my mentor. And, also, my mother, who raised four kids as a single parent.

Higginsen has long collaborated with her husband, Ken Wydro, Creative Director for The Mama Foundation for the Arts. We asked her about this very important personal and professional relationship.

We've been working together since September 15, 1978. Soon after we first met, I was telling him stories about about my family. He said, "This is an amazing story. You should write it down." And I told him that I wouldn't know how to do that, and he said he would help. And that story became Mama I Want to Sing. And we've been together and creating artistically ever since. It is so important to have a spiritual practice on a daily basis when working as a husband/wife team . . . How to listen to each other without criticism, as well as not being afraid to operate outside of the box.

We asked Higginsen about her own expectations for Alive! 55+ and Kickin'.

This show has exceeded all my expectation - especially in terms of the audience's response. How these true stories are connecting with the audience in an authentic, emotional way. It shows just how the arts can play such an important role in communication and in the understanding of cultures. How you can feel loving toward people once you get to know them better.

Higginsen has taken important steps to insure that her approach to the arts has been intergenerational, and has presented programs that bring young generations in touch with older performers. She spoke about this initiative.

It's important to have an inter-generational exchange. The accumulated knowledge, wisdom and understanding - and musical sophistication - of the generations before needs to be passed on. The sounds that are made by the older generation needs to be preserved, passed on to the younger, current generation, who will then pass it on to future ones. This music is an important part of history, and must never die.

Higginsen told us about some of her plans for the future.

I'd like as many people as possible to experience the music, the memories, the messages; the stories of survival, the resilience and the hope on the stage in Alive! I hope that this show can run and be loved and appreciated in the way Mama, I Want to Sing was thirty years ago. I would like to have a sponsor partnership that will allow us to tour the United States, Europe and Japan, so our voices can be heard around the world.

We asked Higginsen if there was anything else, absolutely anything she wanted readers to know.

I would like readers to know that we are incubating new shows in the heart of Harlem, which will be seen first there, and then moved to new theaters in new locations - bringing the voices of Harlem downtown and beyond. We'd like to invite the readers to come and see this all for themselves - to experience the New Harlem. The Uptown Musical Theater Scene - from the Mama Foundation for the Arts - along with the amazing food from the Classic Corridor restaurants, and the culture of one of the world's most legendary artistic neighborhoods.

For more information about Vy Higginsen, visit her web site at

For more information about the Mama Foundation for the Arts, located at 149 West 126th Street, New York, NY 10027, call (212) 280-1045 or visit

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