Two Worlds, One Name, One Blood, Part IV: Spotlight on Vy Higginsen
Marion West’s primary link to the New York branch of West descendants is his cousin Vy Higginsen, a multi-talented arts advocate and businesswoman who burst onto the scene in 1983 with her Off-Broadway hit musical Mama, I Want to Sing! With husband Ken Wydro, director/producer Higginsen co-wrote the acclaimed gospel extravaganza, based on the life and aspirations of her eldest sister, ’60s recording artist Doris Troy—who portrayed her own mother in the play.
Mama’s route to success is the stuff of American legend: no “household names” attached to the production; relatively modest funding and promotion; Harlem location, a considerable distance uptown from “Theater Row” itself. But stellar vocal performances and positive word of mouth powered Mama through over 2,200 shows; fleets of church buses and tour groups—in addition to regular theatergoers—rolled in non-stop throughout the play’s 8-year run. The musical and its by-product, The Mama Foundation for the Arts, are widely credited with having invigorated the local economy, and having been key in re-establishing Harlem as a vital American center for artistic expression of all kinds.
As the subject matter of Mama suggests, family means a great deal to Higginsen, whose daughter, Knoelle, will have a supporting role in the upcoming film version of the play. The film, which, according to Higginsen, is to be released in the fall of 2008, features singer-songwriter Ciara, Patti LaBelle, Lynn Whitfield, and Ben Vereen.
“We are a small family,” Higginsen begins; referring to her genealogical discoveries of the past year, she adds that “connecting with my family, and understanding who they are and where we come from, is vital to where we go”.
“When my grandmother died, relatives came up from Virginia for the funeral in New York,” says Higginsen, who had had little if any contact with most of the Virginia line before this time. “I realized I didn’t have a clue who she was,” says Higginsen, speaking again of her grandmother. Indeed, Higginsen only met Rev. James West—her own uncle, and the link to the Poplar Bluff Wests—in the wake of her grandmother’s passing. Eventually, as the last known male West in the family, she says, he “gave me the assignment to find the others”.
After running into a number of dead-ends in their sleuthing over years, Higginsen and Rev. West had learned enough to make a move that, unbeknownst to them, would have an impact beyond anything they had imagined: They submitted a sample of the priest’s cheek cells for Y-chromosome DNA testing, and had the results placed on the West-surname database mentioned earlier in this series.
Rev. West himself, who died in April of 2006, was not to witness the remarkable intertwining we have seen of these disparate offshoots of the West family tree. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine his own inquiring spirit informing the delicate, yet resilient, branches that bear his mark.
And so we find, as Vy Higginsen and Marion West seek to use their unique personal experience to the collective good, that we have in fact come to a beginning in the story of one American family, and hardly to an end.
(final photo by Scott McDowell; all other photos provided by Vy Higginsen)
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