It was devastating news to hear that actress, composer, lyricist, playwright and musician Micki Grant had transitioned on Saturday, Aug. 21 at Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, at the age of 92. I feel so blessed to have gotten to interview Grant about her groundbreaking musical, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” in 2018. (An interview that ran in the AmNews on July 19, 2018 and was subsequently followed up by my review of a special presentation of this production done as part of Encores! Off-Center series at New York City Center for one weekend only July 25-29.) During the performance, the audience––many of whom had experienced her musical when it was first presented in 1972—went wild, singing and dancing to the 23 songs that were included. Grant was the first woman to write the book, music and lyrics for a Broadway musical and it was a musical that proved to stand the test of time, when it was brought back in 2018.
The points of the musical were still relevant as it looked at many aspects affecting Black life including living in the ghetto, tenements, slumlords, the Black Power movement, feminism and student protests. Grant managed to bring all of these topics to the forefront using a variety of musical genres including jazz, blues, gospel, calypso and soul music. She was always quick to point out that this musical was the baby of both her and the late Vinnette Carroll, who directed the original production in 1972. The New York City Center production was directed by Savion Glover. The 1972 musical was nominated for four Tony Awards—best musical, best original score, best book and best direction. It won a Grammy for best musical theater album, establishing Grant as the first female composer to win in that category. Grant won a 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.
Talking about the musical in our 2018 interview, Grant humbly stated, “When you do right, you do right for posterity…I think it’s a privilege to acknowledge from where I come.” Grant had other Broadway musicals to her credit. She worked with Carroll on “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,” writing some of the songs to Carroll’s book. She also wrote songs for the musical “Working.” All total she was involved in 17 theatrical productions, including “It’s So Nice to Be Civilized,” J.E. Frankin’s “Prodigal Sister,” “Eubie!” and “Sweet & Hot: The Songs of Harold Arlen.”
Although many people knew Grant for her musical work, an entirely different audience knew her for her television work, which began in 1965 with her role as Peggy Nolan on “Another World.” She was also seen on “Guiding Light,” “Edge of Night,” and “All My Children.”
Born Minnie Louise Perkins on June 30, 1929 in Chicago, her parents were Oscar and Gussie Perkins. Her father was a barber and self-taught pianist, her mother was a saleswoman for Stanley Home Products. She got into theater and music at the age of 8 and started out in community productions. She also started piano and double-bass lessons. She was writing music at 14, acting in community theater at 18 and attended the Chicago School of Music and started at the University of Illinois. She performed in a musical revue, “Fly Blackbird,” about segregation in 1962. Her Broadway debut in 1963 came in Langston Hughes’ production of “Tambourines to Glory.” In 1964 she performed in the play “The Cradle Will Rock,” set in the Great Depression. 1965 ushered her into television soap operas, as mentioned earlier. In 1967 Carroll started Urban Arts Corps and used it as a vehicle to promote Black and Puerto Rican performers. In 1970 it was where “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” was first produced. Grant turned her talents to Irwin Shaw’s “Bury the Dead” and created music and lyrics. She also worked on a children’s show––“Croesus and the Witch.” She also wrote lyrics for “Jacques Brel Blues,” and “Don’t Underestimate a Nut,” a musical about George Washington Carver. In the 1990s she took on the role of a Delany sister opposite Lizan Mitchell, in “Having Our Say” and toured for two years in the United States and South Africa. A performance which earned her a Helen Hayes Award.
Grant also directed productions including “Two Ha Ha’s and a Homeboy” at Crossroads Theater Company. She was a member of The Dramatists Guild from 1972 and serve on its Council from 1999. Grant, throughout her incredible life received many honors: an NAACP Image Award; the National Black Theatre Festival’s Living Legend Award; the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award and the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatist Guild of America.
Though the musical that put Grant on the map was called, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” she demonstrated her love and dedication to the plight of her people. Capturing the purpose of the musical in our 2018 interview, Grant shared, “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.” Grant’s life will always be recognized as an exemplary example to those in and out of the arts.
Grant is survived by her cousins Daryl Walker, Kimberly Eberhardt-Casteline and nieces and nephews.
An RSVP-only memorial service will be held at The Riverside Church at 91 Claremont Avenue, on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, at 7 p.m.