“Deborah Joy knew from birth that she was going to be an actress,” gospel music superstar BeBe Winans proclaimed about his niece, Deborah Joy Winans — who stars as CeCe Winans in the musical “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” currently playing at Washington DC’s Arena Stage until August 28th.
The 31-year old actress is the latest member of the world-renowned Winans gospel dynasty. The daughter of Carvin Winans, Sr. (of The Winans), Deborah Joy—as she is affectionately known—is making her theatrical debut in the regional production of BeBe Winans’ “Born for This,” directed and co-written by Charles Randolph-Wright, whose previous credits include “Motown The Musical” and “Sophisticated Ladies.” “Born for This” is co-written and features original music and lyrics by BeBe Winans, with Grammy Award winner Donald Lawrence serving as Music Supervisor.
Although Deborah Joy captures the spirit of her multiple Grammy Award-winning aunt in the role of CeCe Winans, portraying her famous aunt was no easy feat. “This was the first time that I started singing,” she confessed. “I love acting, that’s all I’ve ever loved, so that’s what I went to school for and when I started doing this workshop, it was the first time I had to sing. And that was very, very challenging because I didn’t have to sing any-old song, I had to sing BeBe and CeCe songs. I was playing the role of CeCe and I thought, ‘Oh, people are going to expect me to sound like her and to be her and I’m not her.’ I was very discouraged. So it was a challenge for me to really get to the point of feeling good about stepping on that stage and singing a song. That was my biggest challenge for this role.”
Like their uncle and aunt, Deborah Joy’s stars alongside her brother, Juan Winans—a Grammy-nominated recording artist in own right—who performs the role of BeBe. The siblings make literal “musical” magic together.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect for the burgeoning thespian who is also showcasing her vocal chops as a co-star of the critically-acclaimed Oprah Winfrey-produced faith-based television series “Greenleaf.” “I love the experience,” says Deborah Joy. “I’m doing what it is I love and using the gifts that God has given me. I get to do it with Oprah Winfrey, Lynn Whitfield, Keith David, and Gregory Alan Williams. I learned so much from them, everybody really. I just love being a part of a show that is family oriented.”
In this edition of Inside Broadway, the Detroit-born dynamo shares stories of her family dynasty, working with Oprah Winfrey, and the wisdom and blessings of loved ones.
Inside Broadway: Is Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story your first theater production? Whose idea was it to cast you in this show?
Deborah Joy Winans: Yes, it is my brother [Juan Winans] and I first regional theater production. The director, Charles Randolph-Wright, who is also the co-author of the book, along with Uncle BeBe. When they wanted to do their first workshop to hear it and see how it flowed and to see what changes they wanted to make, they called me because I had already done a workshop with Charles before. I did Motown [The Musical] workshop a year or two before with him in L.A. at Berry Gordy’s home. So he knew that I went to California Institute of the Arts, and felt we can get Joy, she can do CeCe and that we don’t have to worry because we know that she is an actor and that’s what she does. I think that Charles along with other people assumed that I sing. So, I think it was just easy for them, “We don’t have to worry about this if we get her because she knows the family, she knows CeCe and she can handle it.” And that was our first workshop and our second workshop is when they called in my brother [Juan Winans] and when we started working together it just made sense.
IB: What did CeCe think about your portrayal of her? What did your parents and other family members think about your portrayal?
DJW: [CeCe had not gone to see the show yet] My parents [Deborah Winans and Carvin Winans, Sr.] loved it. My parents were very ecstatic. They came to opening night in Atlanta and they were very full. My grandfather [David “Pop” Winans] always promoted family and being close and my dad did the same thing with us, so I think it just made their hearts really happy to see my brother and I working together and doing something that we love. Everybody was super proud. Grandma [Delores “Mom” Winans] was really proud, Uncle Marvin and Uncle Mike, everybody was really happy.
IB: What is the best career advice BeBe and CeCe have given you?
DJW: To work hard and to be anxious for nothing. To know that God’s timing is best and if I work hard and stay consistent that He will work everything out for me.
IB: What are your recording plans?
DJW: (Laughs). I don’t really have any as of yet. I started singing for the musical and then “Greenleaf” happened and I sang on that, but for me I don’t have any plans to make any sort of record. I’m at the point of not saying never, I’m just saying okay, whatever doors God opens I’ll walk through. I never planned on singing and now I’m singing a lot.
IB: How was it growing up as the niece to BeBe and CeCe? Did you spend a lot of time with CeCe as a kid?
DJW: We all spent a lot of time together. We’re a really close family and that was what my grandparents promoted. And so, we’ve all spent quite a bit of time with our aunts and uncles. I have 18 or 19 first cousins and we’re all very close.
IB: How did you secure the role on “Greenleaf?”
DJW: Ms. Winfrey came to a workshop presentation that we did of the musical in New York and she remembered me from there and reached out to my Uncle BeBe and got information and the rest is history. I auditioned and the Lord just worked it out.
IB: Why do you think “Greenleaf” is becoming one of the top new shows on television?
DJW: I think because it marks Oprah’s return to television. She is spearheading it and you know anything that Oprah does, she does with excellence. People already want to be involved and to be a part of it because of who she is, and her track record. The fact that she hired Keith David, Lynn Whitfield and Gregory Alan Williams, she put together a cast that is interesting and just has years and years of incredible work and people want to see good work. I think that is what has drawn the masses to this show and it’s well written. Our writers have been incredible and it also hits on basic truths that people know and understand and people are drawn to things that they recognize in themselves.
IB: What’s your most memorable Winans family story?
DJW: There’s so many. I think of one with my grandfather who passed away in April 2009. He was really funny and I remember telling him when I was about to start college, that I was going to major in theater. And he said “Theater? Ain’t that Broadway?” I said “Yeah.” He said, “Broadway? That’s the way to hell. My Bible says the way to God is narrow.” And I was so stunned, I laughed, I was like “Oh my goodness.” And my grandmother said, “Honey, if you keep your standards, whatever you do, God will bless you. I never forgot that.”
IB: What’s your favorite scripture and why?
DJW: John 3:16, although it’s probably the first scripture I ever learned. I think it always brings meaning to why I live the way I live. And why I strive to be a Christian and be saved. That’s the whole reason.
IB: What’s your favorite BeBe and CeCe song and why?
DJW: They have some good ones. “I’m Lost Without You,” but there’s “I.O.U. Me.” They were just groundbreaking. They were so innovative and exciting. I know people probably think I like my family’s music because they’re my family, but that’s not true. I love my family’s music because I love it. It’s good. I listen to the Winans all the time. I listen to BeBe and CeCe, I listen to Angie and Debbie, I listen to Uncle Daniel, I listen to Phase 2, my two brothers and my two cousins. I think they’re incredible.
IB: What’s your favorite Winans song and why?
DJW: Probably “Tomorrow,” it was written by my dad. “[Tomorrow”] keeps you focused on making sure you’re doing the right thing in the right moment and stop living for what you can do tomorrow, because tomorrow is not promised. So, whatever is happening, it needs to be right now for the glory of God. Not, I’ll do something for the Lord tomorrow. It’s today what counts, it’s what matters.
IB: What are you most optimistic about?
DJW: My future. I was at a point where I couldn’t find an agent or a manager, and I said, “Okay, Lord. If this is what you have for me, I need you to work that. I need you to open doors.” I was at that point of truly surrendering whatever my will was and Lord, if this is what You want, You do it. And, He did it. And He did it in a way that I never imagined it would happen. So, if He can do that, if He can bring me back to Ms. Winfrey’s mind and have her believe in me to the extent of telling people about me. And people were saying, “Oh, she doesn’t have any experience. She doesn’t really have a resume.” [Oprah Winfrey] said: “No, she doesn’t, but I saw her.”
IB: What’s next for you?
DJW: Just finishing the run for “Born for This” in Washington, DC. We have about one more week and then I will get back and start production on season two of “Greenleaf.”
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media specialist with a career spanning over 25 years. She is the founder of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the publisher of Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway with Gwendolyn Quinn” and “My Person of the Week” are published with EURweb.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business. Contact her at [email protected].