“Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” a politically charged musical about life for African-Americans in their communities, will be back after 47 years. The groundbreaking musical has a book, music and lyrics by Micki Grant and was conceived and originally directed by Vinnette Carroll in 1971. Grant gave audiences 16 songs that were an offering of gospel, jazz, funk, soul, calypso and soft rock. The topics covered included living in tenements, slumlords, ghetto life, student protests, Black Power and feminism. The genius of these two ladies is something that is being recognized today as New York City Center presents “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” as part of its Encore! Off-Broadway Series from July 25 to July 28.
The production will star Rheaume Crenshaw, Dayna Dantzler, Aisha de Haas, James T. Lane and Wayne Pretlow. The ensemble members will include Alexandria Bradley, Marshall L. Davis Jr., C.K. Edwards, Jeffry Foote, Shonica Gooden, Nina Hudson, Marla McReynolds and Amber Barbee Pickens. The show will have the brilliant direction and choreography of Savion Glover and musical direction by Annastasia Victory and will play at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues.
Grant, an actress, singer, writer and composer, recently spoke with the AmNews about the upcoming production.
AmNews: Ms. Grant, 1972 was an incredible year for you. This musical won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, making you the first female to win a Grammy for a Broadway score. You received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance and Most Promising Lyricist, the Obie Award for Music and Lyrics, along with an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and several Tony-nominations. When you think back on that now, did you ever think that 47 years later you’d see that the work is still being honored and acknowledged through being performed?
Grant: I didn’t think about it. But I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I was hoping so. Because when you do right, you do right for posterity. I’m a history buff anyway, so I think it’s a privilege to acknowledge from where I have come. For it to become a fresh new item, I don’t think that occurred to me. I’m delighted. I couldn’t be happier. I think it’s so wonderful. Sometimes people use the expression “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” but they don’t know where it came from. It’s wonderful that they can see from where it came. It’s wonderful that the show you grew up seeing and told your children about, now they can see it. I’m so glad it’s happening to me!
AmNews: You give the audience 16 songs that are such a diverse mix of different music genres. Why did you decide to include so many different types of music?
Grant: Because it’s me. I like to tell different stories that seem to fit musically. I studied violin as a kid in elementary, played in a high school orchestra—the double bass and the tuba. I played at the Chicago School of Music, where I studied double bass and became one of the double bass players in the orchestra. I started off with classical music. My dad, who was a barber, played blues piano, so I listened to the blues and jazz. I just heard all of these different sounds and it made sense to me. I started off with a classical frame, but my own way was to weave these sounds into my own creation.
AmNews: Looking at the topics that your songs cover: tenements, slumlords, ghetto life, student protests, Black Power, and feminism, isn’t there an irony that over four decades later, this country is still dealing with these same issues in our communities, but today it’s even more blatantly in our faces?
Grant: Thank you for saying that. It’s truly amazing and sad. You have people marching down the street carrying Confederate flags, Nazi flags. This is a contemporary piece. A lot of what is talked about is history and that doesn’t change. But it is amazing that so much that’s in this piece is right here. Right on our doorstep. It doesn’t make me happy that nothing has changed.
AmNews: What is the message that “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” is trying to convey to an audience?
Grant: With all of this, we have survived because we do cope, we find some way. With all the things that we’ve had to overcome, we’re still walking with our heads high. When you feel down you tell yourself you can’t cope, but in the end you do. The last line is “you gotta cope, I gotta cope, all God’s children gotta cope,” and that’s essentially the message. The song tells a story, too—you got to cope. At the end of the show when I was in it, a couple of us come down the aisle and take the hands of the audience, and everyone is holding hands with each other and it was such a thrill. I used to get letters when I was part of the production. I’ll never forget this line from a white person’s letter. She said, “You made me bleed, but your incision was so clean.” This was the kind of piece that was trying to enlighten people. It wasn’t putting a fist in anybody’s face. Even though the piece is part of history, it is filled with history. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell our story. I talked about Daniel Hale Williams, who performed open-heart surgery on a kitchen table because he couldn’t work in a hospital. This musical was written to give recognition of things that are ignored.
AmNews: This musical is from over four decades. How is it still relevant today, given the scary political climate that we are living in?
Grant: Yes, yes scary is the word. I’ve never seen a president of a country denigrate his own country and our allies. It’s beyond belief and sanity.
AmNews: How is it to have Savion Glover, who has distinguished himself in the theatrical community, as your director and choreographer?
Grant: He’s got his own concept and he’s very excited. Those who have seen it will now be seeing something very different. Even though things have not changed in the world, the way it’s presented onstage has changed a lot. He’s doing Savion’s thing. Even though it’s my baby, I had to let it go. I think it’s going to be a revelation for me and also the theater-going audience. What I’ve always loved about this show is that it provides work for so many of us. When we first put it on we had shows going in New York, Chicago and LA all at the same point.
AmNews: What do you want audiences to embrace about “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope?”
Grant: I think Vinnette put it very well, we want them to see that we are more alike than we are unalike as human beings. And I think that’s expressed when you find out in the end that the audience is willing to reach out and take someone’s hand. Some people in the audience never held the hand of a person of a different race before, and all of the sudden they’re holding another person’s hand. We all want our children to be happy and have love in our lives—we are more alike. Everybody in the world lives in America and we need to learn to respect each other because “We Are the World.” And, I love it.
For tickets call 1-800-840-9227 or visit New York City Center’s website at www.nycitycenter.org.