‘Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope’ creates a compelling soundtrack of African American history
By Chuck Lavazzi
Sometimes, all a person can do is survive and try to get on with their life as best they can. And, though that reality is not limited to persons of color, the truth of the sentiment resonates deeply through their stories and lives. Vinnette Caroll and Micki Grant, the playwright and musician behind “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” clearly understand the struggles of just getting by, particularly among African Americans. Just as clearly, they understand how community, music and strong bonds with others can help to elevate people and provide a sense of hope. The Black Rep’s production of this evocative musical deftly captures this mix of emotions as it relays, through song and dance, a shared history of growing up black in 20th century America.
The songs cover a wide range of styles and eras and, though there isn’t a formal plot to walk us through, a clear story that touches almost every human emotion emerges from the chorus of voices. Veteran performers Denise Thimes, Drummond “Drum” Crenshaw and Herman Louis Gordon, Jr. are the backbone of the show and their voices are featured at key moments. Standout performances are turned in by the entire ensemble, however, which also features the voices of Robert Crenshaw, Seiglinda Fox, Amber Rose, Camille “Cee” Sharp, Keith Tyrone and Tyler White as well as Alison Brandon-Watkins and Antonio Douthit-Boyd in captivating dance roles. Each actor has a moment in the spotlight that they grab on to, but they also move and sing well as a unified chorus and when providing background vocals during featured numbers.
Director Ron Himes capably guides the cast through the emotional ups and downs of the music with skillfull transitions that add context and texture to connect the songs. But “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” is a musical at heart, and its success hinges on the work of musical director Charles Creath, with important contributions from choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd. The two men knock the show out of the park, so to speak, with nuanced interpretations that reach out and envelope the audience, taking us along a musical journey.
Influences from the early 1900s through the l980s or so are easily identified and various genres - the gilded jazz age, the twists and turns of swing and be-bop, the earthy and vibrant blues, the uplifting notes of gospel and soul, the groove of funk, the sway of island rhythms and the electric vibrations of pop music - are vibrant and present. Creath and his band master each style, setting a tone and tempo that allows the performers’ voices to shine, individually and as part of the tightly harmonized chorus. Notable songs, including “I Gotta Keep Moving,” “History of Dance,” “Billie Holiday Blues,” “Show Me That Special Gene,” which also has a lot of humor, “They Keep Coming,” “Prayer” and “Good Vibrations,” are eminently listenable and hummable.
In addition to Himes complimentary direction, the show is visually enhanced with scenic design by Margery and Peter Spack that creates multiple levels for the actors and provides a canvas for their provocatively stunning projections. Sound, lighting and costume design, by Justin Schmitz, Joe Clapper and Andre Harrington provide a satisfying finishing touch.
The songs in “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” continuing at The Black Rep through September 22, tell a unique yet universally relatable story of the struggle to not just survive but to find hope and reason to celebrate in the face of adversity. The authors and company pay tribute to the many cultural contributions of people of color and the talented ensemble adroitly delivers the message for audiences from every background to acknowledge and readily appreciate. The engaging musical is built on African American roots and traditions, but resonates in ways that might help us all keep on keeping on.