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Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope Is a Summertime Celebration

Savion Glover directs a history-making musical by Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll for Encores! Off-Center.

If you're looking for a life-affirming evening of theater, head to New York City Center, where the Encores! Off-Center season is ending with a bang in Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll's Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope.

A celebration of African-American culture and a frank look at the issues that face the community, this loosely structured revue premiered at Ford's Theatre in 1971 and transferred to Broadway a year later. It ran for over 1,000 performances after receiving four Tony nominations and winning the Grammy for its cast album. Carroll, who conceived the show, made history as the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway; Grant became the first African-American woman to write the music and lyrics for a Broadway musical.

Directed and choreographed by Savion Glover for Encores!, Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope is a propulsive evening of music and dance, one that speaks as much to the world of 2018 as it does the 1960s and '70s. The subjects are clear: ghetto life, the power of love, living with dignity, the need to keep moving forward, and learning how to cope with the things that ail us.

Grant's music, played by a kickin' five-piece band, is a generous blend of styles, ranging from rock-and-roll to blues and gospel. It's easy to see why she earned a Grammy for her work; her songs have the kind of rhythms that instantly make us dance in our seats, while her lyrics are intelligent and witty and so warm, without being overly symbolic and heavy.

A scene from Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

Glover's production is the kind of heart-stopping evening we rarely see these days, especially with such a brief rehearsal period. There's an unbridled joy in his staging, with an amazing ensemble of eight dancers hoofing their way through his exuberant choreography, created to fit each of Grant's melodic styles, and the luscious voices of five singers.

It's a show full of highlights. James T. Lane's searing "My Name Is Man" is a passionate example of exercising the right of black bodies to exist in the world. Dayna Dantzler's "Questions," about wondering where you stand as a human, is beautiful. Wayne Pretlow is sterling in his delivery of, among other roles, a church preacher, while Rheaume Crenshaw sounds beautiful on the duet "Thank Heaven for You." And nothing will top Aisha de Haas's sassy delivery during the show's grand finale, "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope."

Perhaps the most affecting piece of the show is "They Keep Coming," about the history-makers and life-changers, those who have altered the lives of the people in the African-American community: JFK, Paul Robeson, Sojourner Truth, and Lorraine Hansberry among them. For this iteration, Grant has added two additional names to the song's ongoing list: Vinnette Carroll and Barack Obama. Those inspirational names do more than just help us cope with hardships. They give us all the hope for the future we need.

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