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Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 26, 2018


The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

Love and courage, pride and hope suffuse the stellar Encores! Off-Center production of Micki Grant's Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope at New York City Center. The 70-minute sung-through show, multifaceted in content and in musical styles as it explores the African American experience, has lost none of its relevance or punch since it was first produced in 1971. That in itself is a sad commentary on the current state of race relations in this country and lends an urgency to the performances by the outstanding cast of five lead singers and eight additional members of the ensemble, under the sure hand of director/choreographer Savion Glover.

In 21 musical numbers ranging from blues to jazz to pop to funk to Caribbean-flavored calypso and soca to roof-shattering gospel, Ms. Grant's score, which garnered her a Grammy, encompasses varied aspects of black life in the U. S. There are scenes set in low-income housing projects and the mean streets of the ghetto, and others at social gatherings in clubs and dance halls, or in church. There are numbers representing the Black Power movement, the battle for women's rights, student protests, and the role of religious faith in black lives. Ms. Grant was just 30 years old when this show began its run of 1,065 performances on Broadway. She wrote about what she knew, what she saw, what she heard. It rang true then. It rings true now.

Savion Glover's direction and choreography tone down the showiness that often marks his solo performances in favor of taking advantage of the strengths of the cast members and meeting the needs of each of the scenes, which flow seamlessly from one to the next. The same serving-the-show collaborative spirit can be found in the design elements, the simple but effective set design by Donyale Werle that changes locales in a flash, and Mark Barton's lighting which instantaneously modifies the mood.

Throughout, Ms. Grant's intent, as she has often stated, is to enlighten rather than to be confrontational. To that end, this production contains some gently-placed but significant updates that serve to quietly bring home the underlying message that Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope is not merely a museum piece of a revival. These include a pointed reference to Trayvon Martin, and a knee taken at the end of a number about black empowerment. Such moments can fly by unnoticed if you are not paying attention.

The most crowd-pleasing of the numbers takes place during a church service. The scene cleverly occurs immediately following one titled "The History of Dance," during which the cast breaks out in a series of snippets of dance taking them through the years from the Charleston to boogie and disco and beyond. Then, in a blink, Saturday night turns into Sunday morning, the benches and the hand-held fans break out, and we are in the midst of a service presided over by a powerhouse performer, Wayne Pretlow, doing a blazing turn as the preacher. Sunday, he tells the congregation (and the audience), "is the one day of the week when you can rest from all the battles you've had to fight all week long." These are the very battles against injustice and inequality that have been sung about all evening.

The play's message is even better carried during two other less flamboyant scenes. One of these is a number called "My Name Is Man," sung in a knockout performance by James T. Lane. "My name is Man," it goes. "Lusty, bad and loud/Stubborn, black, and proud as I wanna be." Ms. Grant may speak softly, but her message is passionate and persuasive, never more so than when she herself recites the poem that launches the show. Titled "Universe In Mourning," it starts out: "A storm is raging in the West, the tallest trees are dying/The clouds have lost their friendliness, and all the stars are crying." But later, there is a line that is repeated, one that sets the tone for the entire show: "So hand in hand let's stand, and join the universe in mourning/Straining our vision for a glimpse of a new world aborning."

Some have suggested that Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope is too gentle a show to tell a story that has been marked with so much injustice and struggle. But not every message has to come in the form of a sound bite or a tweet or needs to be typed in ALL CAPS. So, you can go to see this show for its terrific cast, which includes gloriously rich performances by Rheaume Crenshaw, Dayna Dantzler, and Aisha de Haas along with those by Mr. Lane and Mr. Pretlow and an exceptionally talented ensemble and band. But if you really listen, you will leave with Micki Grant's powerful message ringing in your ears and tattooed to your heart.


Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope
Through July 28
New York City Center's Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.nycitycenter.org


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