REVIEW WRITTEN BY FRANK BURD
For Digital First Media
Now on stage at New Freedom Theatre is a 45 year-old play that is as relevant today as when it was first performed in Washington, D.C., then played on Broadway for more than 1,000 performances. “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” grew from the frustrations of the African-American experience in America. A show comprised of all singing and dancing, it confronts issues that remain issues today — ghetto life, Black power, housing, and protests top the list. But it also embraces what it means to be a woman or man, what it means to be a human being. And of course, it is about what it is to be Black.
On the stage, we are lured into the lives of twelve performers as this amazingly talented cast pours their individual and collective hearts out through jazz, calypso, rock, and gospel music. In the intimate setting behind the theater that seats only 70, we are almost in their faces. As the extraordinary dancers glide and slither, stomp and jump, and almost fly across the stage, we are mesmerized.
Conceived by Vinette Carroll, the book, music, and lyrics were written by Micki Grant. With this show, Carroll became the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway. It garnered several Tony nominations and won the 1972 Outer Critics Circle Award.
This reincarnation includes all the songs, but it also includes, between the songs, protests and pickets against gun violence and racism and for gender identity and better education. This production is set around the demolition of William Penn High School (formerly located across the street from Freedom Theatre). With a deteriorating building and a population of less than 700, the School District closed the school and sold the property to Temple University, which is turning it into an athletic facility. The protest in the play features one against Temple U. and what the community sees as a gentrification of that part of N. Philadelphia.
I found the politics of some of the protests less powerful than the power within the words of the songs. The titles alone almost tell the stories: “I Gotta Keep Moving, Philly Streets, Billie Holiday Blues, You Think I Got Rhythm, My Name is Man, It Takes a Whole Lot of Human Feeling, We Gotta Keep Movin’” and of course “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.”
In this cast of 12, we are reminded once again, that there is no one Black experience — there are 12 — there is one for every person. I was flabbergasted when I discovered that only one member of the cast, Tamara Anderson of the cast was Equity. She was powerful as the bag lady. But so to were Nicole Stacie, Marquis D. Grissom, Lauren Shaye, and James Pitts Jr. It is worth the price of admission just to watch Sanchel Brown, Denzel Thompson-Stout, Tamiyah Miller, and Stanley Morrison perform dances and movements rarely seen on the Philadelphia stage. This is a professional performance of the highest level. “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” is a winner.