Micki Grant: "I wanted to open my eyes"

The Manhattan Theater was teeming with black voices in the early 1970s, but these tended to be heard in smaller spaces like the New Fede...


The Manhattan Theater was teeming with black voices in the early 1970s, but these tended to be heard in smaller spaces like the New Federal Theater, the Negro Ensemble Company, and the Urban Arts Corps. Micki Grant’s “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” spent time in such theaters before heading to Broadway in 1972, making it the first time a woman wrote the book, the music and lyrics from a Broadway musical.

The result – four Tony Award nominations, over a span of more than two years – was a testament to Grant, a pioneer in virtually every field she touched. She died on August 21 at the age of 92. But the show’s success is also due in part to its image of black America, an image Grant created through a mixture of conviction and calculation.

Just as “Hair” channeled the counter-cultural passions of the era into an ensemble that (most) Broadway theatergoers could handle – Joe Papp, who brought this show to Broadway from his brand new Public Theater. in 1968, described it as “wonderful for the middle-aged” – “Don’t Bother Me” took a clear-sighted but rarely confrontational stance on race relations. At one point, members of the the cast raised clenched fists, which then turned into signs of peace.

“I wanted to open my eyes but not look away” Grant told me in a 2018 interview about the work, which she described as a conscious divergence from more inflammatory plays by black playwrights like Ed Bullins and Amiri Baraka. “I wanted to do it with a soft fist.” (Grant had just returned from the hospital when we met, but was still energetic enough to shave over a decade of his stated age at the time without arousing any suspicion.)

And so the show discussed slavery and slum lords but also Flip Wilson and Archie Bunker, which resulted in what New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes described as “a mix of a block party and a wake-up meeting. “

As it turns out, Grant was in a rare position to make those decisions. She had spent several years as a contract performer on a soap opera – one of the first black actors to do so – playing a lawyer, Peggy Nolan, on “Another World”. (She also starred in “Don’t Bother Me.”) She continued to be successful by writing publicity jingles, earning a Clio price along the way.

But the advertising and soap opera industries aren’t exactly known for cultivating author voices. The theater gave Grant the chance to write every syllable and note of “Don’t Bother Me,” which earned him half of the show’s four Tony nominations. (Her collaborator is dating Vinnette Justine Carroll, who became the first black woman to direct on Broadway, was also nominated.)

It appeared empty at the 1973 Tony Awards – “A Little Night Music” and “Pippin” also opened this season – but “Don’t Bother Me” featured an equally comfortable musical voice with calypso, la lyrics, soul, funk, jazz, and even what you might call proto-hip-hop. Not to mention the gospel, which came to the fore in “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God” and other later shows Grant wrote or co-wrote.

Dabbling in black musical idioms weren’t new to Broadway, of course: Cole Porter never encountered an Afro-Caribbean beat he couldn’t use, while Frank Loesser practically dropped the still-common use. of a gospel style roof lifter to get the crowd agitated towards the end of a performance. But Grant’s wide array of re-uses was of a different nature, as he drew heavily on his own past.

This versatility has made her an essential lyricist for the pre-existing melodies of Eubie Blake (“Eubie!”) But also of Harold Arlen (“Sweet & Hot”) and Jacques Brel (“Jacques Brel Blues”), and that Also earned her was on the 1978 “Working” all-star writing team alongside James Taylor, Stephen Schwartz and Mary Rodgers. When I spent long afternoons in college listening to scores released on Broadway, a particularly quick passage from his song “Working”Love AlMade me rewind the library tape player for a good half hour.

Grant, former national chair of the Actors Equity union’s equal opportunities employment committee, considered her biggest professional disappointment “Phillis,” a 1986 musical about pioneering black poet Phillis Wheatley. In a recent interview for American theater magazine, released after her death, she blamed the white director for the show’s failure, saying he had no knowledge or sensitivity about the matter.

But Grant recovered from it, as she had done many other setbacks by becoming her own kind of trailblazer. “There is so little time for hate,” Grant sang nearly 50 years ago on the series that earned him a place in history. His hand was also able to squeeze and relax as a sign of peace. The fist was soft, but it held considerable force.

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