With the exception of a mention of Barack Obama in the lineage of history makers within the black community, The Black Rep took a purist approach to their presentation of Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll’s “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.”
Through their presentation of the production, which opened the company’s 43rd season, the play serves as a time capsule that connects audiences to the perpetual challenges that come with a continual cycle of systemic racism and oppression – and the resilience of a people who have persisted in spite of the odds. The musical from the early 1970s broke new ground on Broadway as the first musical to be written and directed by black women. With its treatment of maintaining the original format, The Black Rep reminds audiences that the play was also trailblazing in its expression of black culture – and how art was informed by the unique challenges and additional roadblocks to the American dream within the African-American community.
From the opening number “I Gotta Keep Movin,” which pairs the rich male voices of Herman Gordon, Keith Tyrone and Drummond Crenshaw with the stunning movement of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater alum Antonio Douthit-Boyd, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” introduces audiences to black people’s ability to power through. And with the next number “Harlem Streets,” reminds them what the community is up against – which is essentially the ebb and flow for the entire musical.
There is no dialogue and the approach to the telling of the story of the unnamed characters within the ensemble is a non-linear one that covers a range of emotions through music of the time with influences of funk, R&B, blues, soul and calypso.
And while Grant and Carroll are credited for kicking down the door on behalf of black women on Broadway, the pair should also be recognized for introducing the first elements of rap and hip-hop to the Broadway stage. More than 40 years before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” became a cultural phenomenon by setting the story of an American founding father to beats and rhymes, Grant and Carroll created the blueprint with the lyrical expression of the black struggle relatable to all who have experienced it – then and now.
As with most pioneering work, there is a bit of room for fine tuning – particularly with how some of the selections labor on – but “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” has earned its rightful place in musical theater history. For the Black Rep production, a talented team of performers give the musical a restaging that the original creators would be happy to see.
The 11-person ensemble is packed full of a wide range of well blended voices that reflect different generations. Black Rep veterans Drummond Crenshaw, Herman Gordon, Denise Thimes, and Keith Tyrone are paired with newer performers Sieglinda Fox, Amber Rose, Camille Sharp and Tyler White. Douthit-Boyd, Robert Crenshaw and dancer Alison Brandon-Watkins are making their Black Rep debut with “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.”
Between Ron Himes’ direction, Kirven Douthit-Boyd’s choreography and Charles Creath’s musical direction, each ensemble member gets an opportunity to showcase their strengths over the course of the show – with Tyler White and Robert Crenshaw showcasing themselves as the newest double threats within the Black Rep’s roster of players through dance and vocal solo performances.
White, a young actress who was introduced to the stage through the Black Rep’s Summer Performing Arts Program as a 9-year-old, showcased the company’s ability to identify and nurture talent.
The scenic design of Margery and Peter Spack and costuming of Andre Harrington recreate the urban landscape of the fast-talking, funk-driven elements of the musical that offers context on the continuum of a strength of a people despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
The Black Rep’s presentation of “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” continues through Sunday, September 22 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth. For tickets or additional information, visit www.theblackrep.org or call (314) 534-3807.