Credit: Handout photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre

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It’s never been entirely clear just how much church music a secular audience will embrace. Ray Charles combined the “sacred and the secular” in songs like “Georgia on My Mind” and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” But Grammy Award–winning artists BeBe and CeCe Winans were criticized for taking God and Jesus out of some of their songs. Gospel artists might find themselves asking the same question the autobiographical musical Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story poses to BeBe Winans: “Here’s God, and here’s fame. Do they work together?”

In its D.C. premiere—the show debuted in Atlanta—Born for This is a co-production with Arena Stage and Alliance Theater that tells the life story of a young BeBe and CeCe Winans, siblings of the well-known gospel singing group The Winans. They leave their sheltered home in Detroit and move to Pineville, South Carolina. There, faith and spirituality are tested as the new act on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s show Praise the Lord. Eventually, after a brush with TV fame and up-and-coming celebrities (including a young Whitney Houston), BeBe must decide what path he will choose—to become a major recording artist or continue as a gospel singer.

There’s no reason to believe that Juan Winans and Deborah Joy Winans, the nephew and niece of BeBe and CeCe who play those siblings in the show, were shown favoritism in the casting: They earn their roles, working in tandem in outstanding performances that mix in fun family dynamics and bits of sibling rivalry. So why is this not called the BeBe and CeCe Winans Story? After all, the actors share roughly the same amount of stage time and are left to contemplate major life decisions like CeCe’s early marriage to Alvin Love or unique circumstances such as being the first African-American singers on a major Christian network.

Kiandra Richardson, who overcame a brief sound technicality, fit the physical role of a young Whitney Houston, but had some big shoes to fill. Kirsten Wyatt’s interpretation of Tammy Faye Bakker, however, nearly stole the show, with her squeaky voice and over-the-top hysterics in her affection for young CeCe and BeBe. And there’s so much feeling in Nita Whitaker’s portrayal of Mom Winans in the second act with her performance of the song “Seventh Son.” It drew supportive “mmm hmms” from many of the women in the audience, who were no doubt touched by lyrics in which she asks the Lord to watch over her son. Like Baptist churchgoers, the audience gets in to a call-and-response interaction with the actors on original songs, singing along to recognizable tunes like “Up Where We Belong” and “Tomorrow.”

The music, rather than the story, makes this production. But the audience doesn’t know the end of BeBe’s story, so the plot’s crescendo and denouement stop short in the last few scenes of the second act. Although marvelously fluid and entertaining, the ending feels abrupt and unfinished.

In the end, the critical question of whether contemporary gospel music’s true inspiration is God or audience enthusiasm might never be fully resolved. One actor remarks that they are “singing about Jesus one step away from hell.” This show won’t absolve your sins, but it will make you feel like you’ve gone to church on Sunday morning.

The play runs to Aug 28.1101 6th Street SW. $50–$110. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.