Vy Higginsen learned about the power of music growing up on West 126th street in Harlem, and now her work, located only seconds from the apartment she grew up in, touches young people from all over the city and theatergoers around the world. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
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You can ask Vy Higginsen about almost anything — her Gospel For Teens choir, her trailblazing in magazine sales, radio and Broadway. But never, even indirectly, ask about her age. Ask her how old she was when she moved to the Bronx, and she will respond with a growl and laughter.
No matter what her age is, Higginsen is often surrounded by the sounds of youth, many young African-Americans who flock to her from all over New York.
The children yearn to work with her because she is the woman behind a long-running off-Broadway show that has been staged around the world, "Mama I Want To Sing."
Higginsen's resume sports a number of firsts: first woman in advertising sales at Ebony, first black female disc jockey at WBLS and the first black woman to produce a Broadway show.
Now her mission is to connect young black men and women to gospel through her Mama Foundation For The Arts.
"To see them change mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, that’s what happened when we started the Mama Foundation," says Higginsen.
It has been said that the Mama Foundation saves many of its participants, and she wants the rehearsals to serve as a haven.
"When you hear about a young child whose brother got shot in the streets of New York, with a machine gun in his face, oh god," remembers Higginsen.
So Higginsen offers the choir a mantra, "Leave your baggage outside the door."
"Open the channel so that we can receive some energy, some spirit, some vibration, just so you can deal with the rest of what’s going on," she says.
On the other side of the building where Higginsen now works is the building where she was born. Growing up on that block, she moved to the Bronx, attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, lived in Downtown Manhattan and eventually returned to the block both to live and work.
From a young age, she watched her older sister Doris Troy, best known for the 1963 hit "Just One Look."
Troy had a successful musical career in the '60s and '70s and died in 2004. Her story became the story behind "Mama I Want To Sing."
"My sister, who was singing in the church with my mother and father, she wanted to sing music of the day, which she heard, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan. So she wanted to go that way, and the church was that way," says Higginsen. "This block tells the story of Doris Troy but also tells the story of African-American music in America. You know, from the church, to the radio, to the bigger stages."
Higginsen's daughter, Noelle, has a booming voice, but Vy doesn't share the family trait.
Asked if she wants to make a musical debut, Higginsen answers, "Not a chance, are you kidding? I can’t sing a note."
"Can't" is not a word often associated with Higginsen's long journey, from Ebony magazine to WBLS and WWRL, and from off-Broadway to Broadway.
"It was like building a resume, getting an education in each one of these categories," she says. "They didn’t diagnose it back then, but maybe they call it ADD, I don’t know. But whatever it is, I wanted to understand it, conquer it and then do something else."
She already had experience producing "Mama I Want To Sing" off-Broadway when she co-produced August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come And Gone" in the late 1980s. She says Broadway required some adjustments.
"I had to keep my mouth shut sometimes. It’s not easy to do," says Higginsen. "But no, I had to kind of say, 'Well, maybe this way does work better.'"
One of her interests through the years has been her genealogy. She took a DNA test that eventually connected her to distant relatives.
"I get a call from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and I hear this voice say, 'Hey, kiddo, I hear we’re cousins, my name is Marion West and I’m a cattle rancher from Poplar Bluff, Missouri.' And that was all through DNA."
The result was featured in a segment on CBS' "60 Minutes."
"To this day, we’re all friends. We just had a family reunion here in Harlem recently," she says. "We go back and forth to Poplar Bluff, and don’t ask me how it happened, it’s like everything else, it just happened."
Another chapter that just happened? How Higginsen met her husband Ken Wydro. They were both guests on a talk show in 1978 discussing the merits of being single.
"He was saying that being single was a really special time, that this was an opportunity to tune into yourself and find out more about who you really are, before you can invite someone else to be a co-pilot with you," says Higginsen. "And that’s what resonated with me and that sounded pretty spiritual."
Her husband was the co-writer and producer of the original "Mama I Want To Sing," which has subsequently played in Japan and Europe, where Higginsen believes the show's purpose is not only to entertain, but change perceptions of African-Americans.
"Moving in body bags or doing the perp walk to jail, and that’s not really all there is," says Higginsen. "That the other part of this community is rich and full of conversation and food and music and history and culture and to explore all that, and to present that on stage, I feel, is an important work."
Vy Higginsen's story is very much a Harlem story. But word of the choir has gone national, thanks in part to a second segment on "60 Minutes." She says she once heard an adage that encapsulates her own focus now, to have others blaze their own trails.
"What I heard them say is that it's good to be the first, but you've got to work to make sure you're not the last," She says.
Gospel For Teens will be performing a benefit concert this Friday night at the Dempsey Theater in Harlem, plus four more performances of "Mama I Want To Sing" — two on Saturday, December 10 and two more on Saturday, December 17. The show will then resume in February.