Vy Higginsen has never encountered a barrier she hasn’t been able to knock down. There are so many “firsts” on her resume, describing her with just one accomplishment is impossible. She is executive director of the Mama Foundation for the Arts, a non-profit arts organization founded in 1999 and located in Harlem whose 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 twice been the subject of profiles on CBS’s award-winning news show 60 Minutes. The most recent segment aired on January 4.
Vy traveled the world at a very young age, alongside her beloved sister, recording artist Doris Troy whose hit song “Just One Look” not only soared on the hit charts but was rerecorded by many other singers including Linda Ronstadt, the Hollies, and Anne Murray.
Shortly after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Vy became 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 spent a decade behind the microphone at major New York radio stations, earning the distinction of being NYC’s first black female radio personality in primetime at WBLS, and the first woman to host a New York radio morning show at WWRL. On camera, she has been a contributing reporter for WNBC-TV, including the long-running “Positively Black” segment, and The Metro Channel.
In 1983, Vy co-wrote and co-produced along with her husband, Ken Wydro, the classic gospel musical, Mama, I Want To Sing. The longest-running African-American Off Broadway musical in history, the show ran for eight years and went on to be performed on stages throughout the U.S., in London’s West End, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the Caribbean and Japan.
Other productions that Vy and Ken have conceived, written and produced include the remainder of the “Mama” trilogy: Sing, Mama 2 and Born to Sing: Mama 3; Sing Harlem Sing, Alive! – 55+ and Kickin’ and We Are!
A Tony nominated producer, Vy earned the distinction of being the first black woman to present another playwright on the Broadway stage, as producer of August Wilson’s Joe Tuner’s Come and Gone in 1988.
Through the Mama Foundation’s Gospel for Teens program, which began in 2006, musical instruction in the art form of gospel music has been offered to young people between the ages of 13 and 19 at no cost, providing desperately needed support to musically gifted children by replacing the arts programs taken out of many inner city schools. Gospel for Teens was the subject of an award-winning 60 Minutes feature story (two 2012 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Feature Story in a News Magazine, as well as a 2012 National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award).
The talented young people who have received their training through the program make up the Gospel for Teens Choir, an award-winning professional ensemble which has had the privilege to perform alongside artists such as Cissy Houston, Madonna (2010 Hope for Haiti Now telethon), and Arsenio Hall and Clay Aiken (2012 Celebrity Apprentice finale). The Gospel for Teens Choir recently performed at the 2013 Christmas Tree Lighting in Rockefeller Center with Ariana Grande, the 2014 Super Bowl Players Ultimate Tailgate event; and the 2014 Google/You Tube Brandcast Upfront Presentation with Pharrell Williams. The Choir also currently appear in the Mama Foundation’s productions of Mama, I Want to Sing: The Next Generation (which recently toured Japan, celebrating the musical’s 25th anniversary there), and We Are!, an original musical about the Gospel for Teens program.
In 2012, Vy founded Harlem Records, a Harlem-based independent record label. For her outstanding contributions to Gospel music, Vy has received the Thomas A. Dorsey Most Notable Achievement Award at the 2012 Stellar Gospel Music Awards, as well as a ‘Shine A Light’ recognition at the 2012 BET Awards. She was also recognized as a Harlem Hero in “Harlem Is . . .” a public art and education project of Community Works, celebrating the living history of Harlem at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
My career in theater chose me. Many years ago, I had a conversation with my friend (Ken Wydro, who later became my partner– in life and in the theater) about my work on the radio, and also my sister’s musical career (singer Doris Troy – who had an international hit with the song “Just One Look” in the 1960s) in New York and London. He said, “That is a great story, why don’t you write it down?” When I told him that I didn’t know how to do that, he said he would help. And that was the beginning of Mama, I Want to Sing – the longest running Off-Broadway Black Musical in the history of American theater.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
Simply — how an idea can become a reality.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I capitalized on the years of experience that I had in other areas – my fashion training from FIT, my years in advertising and publishing, my years as a radio DJ – and used those abilities to effectively identify and then communicate with an audience.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
Both. Along the way people were both encouraging and discouraging. Some people said: “You can never do this. It’ll never work. Why are you even bothering?” While others said: “Go for it. Nothing beats a failure but a try.”
We first tried to find producers to bring Mama, I Want to Sing to Broadway. When they said NO, we decided to do it ourselves. It was a conscious decision on our part to then perform the show in Harlem – to bring this Harlem story to this community, which was artistically underserved at the time. We opened at the Heckscher Theater (which was located on 104th Street and Fifth Avenue) in 1983.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I never doubted my decisions. I think that’s important. You have to truly believe in yourself first – if you do, others will follow your lead.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
During that initial production of Mama, I Want to Sing – how the audiences responded to the music and the story on stage. It started in the community and grew from there. Before long, we were performing ten shows a week. The show ran for eight years Off Broadway.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Being evicted from the theater that we had been operating in for eight years; that presented quite a sadness. When the original production of Mama, I Want to Sing closed, it was still a hit. When we moved into the Heckscher Theater it had been deserted for years. And then while we were running, Mayor Koch went to court seeking to evict us. His reasoning was the building was designated for nonprofit use, and we were a commercial production. It didn’t matter that the rent we paid helped to support the nonprofit tenants of the building, that it was this very show’s success that saved this landmark theater, and that we were employing hundreds in the community and drawing business into the area. After years of legal battles, we were eventually forced to close. However, that led us to take the show on tours around the United States, Europe and Japan. So, there’s a lesson in never giving up on your vision!
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
My communication and marketing skills. Nothing can exist in a vacuum – a show needs an audience. A non-profit needs supporters.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Continuing a family legacy and watching the Mama Foundation grow through my daughter Knoelle, who currently plays the lead in our revival of Mama, I Want to Sing (playing the role of her Aunt Doris), and also the Gospel for Teens Choir Director. I was pregnant with her during that initial run of Mama, I Want to Sing – her life literally began on stage! The Mama Foundation continues to thrive artistically due to her many talents.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Be multifaceted. Make sure you identify and explore every talent you possess, and mindfully develop those talents as your career advances.
Mama Foundation for the Arts
149 West 126th Street
New York, NY 10027?o