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Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope Review: Savion Glover Brings Back 1970s Black Musical Revue

There is a full-out gospel number, with swaying red choir robes, heavenly belting and devilishly deft dancing, in this last of this season’s Encores Off-Center concerts. But, as directed and choreographed by Savion Glover, whatever the talented cast is performing at any given moment —  whether the blues, soul, funk, jazz, rock, calypso or spoken-word poetry – “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope”  is entertaining enough to feel like a near-religious experience.  Or to put it the way I said it to myself during the very first song: “Holy Cow!”

This musical revue about the African-American experience has a moral center too, which is evident before the curtain even rises: “A storm is raging in the west,” Micki Grant recites in voiceover, the first words of the opening poem “Universe in Mourning.”
Grant, now 77, created “Don’t Bother Me…” nearly half a century ago; when it opened on Broadway, she became the first woman ever to write the music and lyrics of a Broadway show. Her collaborator, the late Vinnette Carroll, who is credited with conceiving the show, also directed it in 1972, the first black woman director on Broadway.

“Universe in Mourning” makes lyrical allusions to the threat of nuclear war, the tension of civil rights, the rising death toll from the Vietnam War — and also climate change and income inequality. But this first of some two dozen songs, poems and vignettes sets the tone for the rest of the 75-minute show – bemused and angry, sure, but also amused, buoyant, and hopeful: “Hand in hand let’s stand,” Grant concludes the first poem, envisioning “a new world aborning.”

The show has been updated with references to Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin and Roseanne, but many of the themes remain remarkably current without any alteration. Decades before the movie “Get Out,” the song “Time Brings About A Change” poked fun at white paternalism:
Somebody started a rumor that
Socializing with blacks could be fun
And pretty soon, as the word got ‘round
Every cocktail party had one.”
Wayne Pretlow’s solo, “Looking Over From Your Side,” gives race relations a humorous spin, but with an edge: What he sees as his rat-infested tenement, others (presumably white people) see as a quaint house filled with history.

In “Ghetto Life/All I Need,” Rheaume Crenshaw and Dayna Dantzler are more blunt:
I don’t need your platitudes
I don’t need your pity
….
All I need
Less fat back,
More green back
And you off my back

The same duo make a pitch for feminism in “Show Me That Special Gene”:
Show me that special gene
that says I was born to make the beds,
Show me that certain chromosome
that says my place is in the home.

For all the pointed lyrics threaded through the show, the takeaway tone is exuberance. That’s true when stand-out Aisha de Haas sings her solos, “Billie Holiday Blues” and “Fighting for Pharoah,” and when the entire ensemble lets loose with Glover’s choreography in that gospel number, which is entitled “Good Vibrations” – which could work as a title for the show as a whole.

It’s only in the last number that the actual title gets a full airing, with cast members in turn talking half-humorously about their characters’ individual problems — bad bosses, a greedy slumlord, a nasty clerk at the unemployment office, even a hijacking to Havana. But the most vivid complaint is Aisha de Haas’ about her therapist (Jeffry Foote), who, in a twist, starts complaining about the ways he can’t cope. This prompts her to respond:

Between yours and mine
It’s hard to keep track
But I’m still one up on you.
You ain’t black

She adds a “but,” and it’s a big one, tuneful and uplifting, joined in by the entire ensemble:

You Gotta Cope
I Gotta Cope
All God’s Chillun Gotta Cope

Song/scene list
Universe in Mourning
I Gotta Keep Movin’
Harlem Streets
Lock Up the Dogs/Goin’ To Town This Morning
Love Power
Harlem Streets (reprise)
Lookin’ Over From Your Side
They Keep Coming / Riot
My Name is Man
Ghetto Life
All I Need
Billie Holiday Blues
Vignettes – Children’s Rhymes
Show Me That Special Gene
My Love’s So Good
Time Brings About a Change
So Little Time
Thank Heaven For You/History of Dance/Prayer
Questions
Sermon
Fighting for Pharaoh/Sermon
Good Vibrations
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope

Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope

Created by Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll; Music and lyrics by Micki Grant; Directed and choreographed by Savion Glover
Cast: Rheaume Crenshaw, Dayna Dantzler, Aisha de Haas, James T. Lane, Wayne Pretlow, Alexandria Bradley, Marshall L. Davis Jr., CK Edwards, Shonica Gooden, Marla McReynolds, Amber Barbee Pickens, Jeffry Foote and Nina Hudson
Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope is on stage at New York City Center through July 28, 2018

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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