Working Her Own Tune: Revisiting the Life, Legacy, and Work of Micki Grant

Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—

Jordan Ealey: —and Jordan Ealey. On this podcast, which is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons—a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide—we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners; and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.

Born June 30, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois, Micki Grant drastically changed the scope of musical theatre. Learning music through bass lessons and eventually picking up piano, Grant moved to Los Angeles with her cousin, Jeni LeGon, to pursue acting upon finishing high school. In Los Angeles, Grant found modest success in theatre and eventually moved to New York to attend Lehman College. It was there that she began what would become a hugely successful collaboration with director Vinnette Carroll. With Carroll, Grant composed the music for, and starred in, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope in 1971.

Beginning in D.C., the musical found success and moved to Broadway where Grant became the first Black woman to compose a musical for Broadway, the first Black woman to be nominated for a Tony for Best Original Score, and the first Black woman to win the Grammy for Music and Lyrics for a Broadway Musical. Grant would go on to be nominated for two more Tonys and have a long and storied career in theatre. Despite her commercial and critical success, we have found that Grant’s work remains on the margins of Black musical theatre history. So on today’s episode, we focus on Micki Grant’s life, legacy, and work.

All right. Welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine. I’m Jordan—

Leticia: —and I’m Leticia, and we are back on these mics, as promised, three episodes back-to-back. Today is a really… Every episode is exciting for me. But today’s episode is super, super exciting for me, because we are diving in and talking about the amazing and illustrious and just trailblazing luminary—cultural luminary—Micki Grant; definitely a Black theatre legend, passed away… was it this past year, or the year prior?

Jordan: I believe it was August 2021. So, it’s almost been about a year, which is so wild to think about.

Leticia: When we were discussing our season, we discussed wanting to honor some of the Black women, specifically theatremakers, that had passed over COVID, that we wanted to get a chance to honor. So, we had Ntozake Shange, which wasn’t during COVID but wanted to make sure that we honored her. We are following up with Micki Grant, and we have a few more folks that we’re going to pay homage to—specifically Black women in theatre. So it’s really an honor to be here and to discuss her legacy and her life’s work.

Jordan: Absolutely. So, before we get into all the nitty-gritty, Leticia: When did you first encounter Micki Grant’s work?

Leticia: Man, I feel like a bad Black theatre person because the first time I encountered her work was probably in graduate school. And quite frankly, Jordan, I think you introduced me to her when you were doing some of your thesis work that didn’t necessarily directly focus on her. But you were creating a genealogy of Black women theatre creators. And you mentioned her to me, and you were like, “Have you heard of this musical, Don’t Bother Me, [I] Can’t Cope? It was nominated for a Tony, Micki Grant, Vinnette Carrol.” And I was like, “Uh, Uh-huh. No, I don’t.”

So you actually introduced me to Micki Grant. I’m not shocked because even in doing research for this particular episode, we found that it was actually quite difficult. There’s actually not a lot written about her and her work. So how did you come to Micki Grant, as someone where there’s not a lot of scholarship, necessarily?

Jordan: Yeah. So, also graduate school, I was taking a historiography class. And, like you said, I was working on my thesis at the time. I was focusing on Kirsten Childs’ work, and her musical, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. And I remember reading this article by Harry Elam where he talks about Lorraine Hansberry and Suzan-Lori Parks, and things about how Black women are thinking about history and creates a dialogue between those two playwrights, specifically, The Drinking Gourd by Lorraine Hansberry, her [un]published screenplay, and then Suzan-Lori Parks, I believe it was, Venus. And I might be misspeaking. So, charge it to my head, not my heart.

And I remember reading the article and feeling very inspired to think about Kirsten Childs’ musical beyond the text itself but to put it in conversation with other works. But I’ve realized, when I was doing that, that I could not think, right off the top of my head, of another musical created by a Black woman. And a colleague of mine was like, “Have you heard of Micki Grant?” And I was like, “I have not heard of Micki Grant before.” And, as soon as she said that, I put her name into Google, and the wheels started turning.

And, actually, Leticia, so I might not have known Micki Grant but I actually do know her work. So when I went to a performing arts high school in Atlanta. And, every single year, we had a Black History Month program. And, within that, one of the years that I was at my high school—I believe it was my freshman year—they did, kind of, like a cabaret-style, revue-style Black History Month show. And the song, “They Keep Coming” was within that show.

For those of you who are not familiar, “They Keep Coming” is one of the songs in Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. And it just has this very militant, beat-like [singing]. And it’s like paying homage to these big historical figures and leaders. And light-bulb moment when I was listening to it, I was like, “Oh, my goodness.” So I may not have known, specifically, the name Micki Grant. But I absolutely have encountered her work prior to this. But that’s how I came to know Micki Grant’s work. And it just has become a huge obsession for me, as someone who’s studying Black-women-created musicals.

Leticia: Yeah, and I think what’s also very interesting about Micki Grant [and] probably a lot of Black theatre creators is, you start out as an actor. Then you realize, “Wait. There’s some other things to do.” But even though she was known for her composition and being a librettist, she also had a very successful acting career.

Jordan: Wasn’t she the first Black woman character to have a storyline on a soap opera?

Leticia: Yes, for a long time as well. And she was also in… had a Broadway debut as an actor in Tambourines to Glory, which was a short gospel-singing play that was written by none other than Langston Hughes. So she was working alongside luminary Black figures of these times. So, I think, sometimes we’re putting Micki Grant in context, we think of her working along someone like Langston Hughes. And, before we even started the episode, you were like: “Did you know that Micki Grant and Lorraine Hansberry went to the same high school?” And I was like, “What? Get me to that high school, immediately, immediately!”

Jordan: And, actually, I want to correct myself. It was not Days of Our Lives. It was… She played on Guiding Light and All My Children. But the one that really made her solidified as like, the first Black person to have a long contract in a soap opera, was Another World, which was on NBC. Shoutout to all of the grandmothers that be watching their stories because I’m sure my grandma definitely saw Micki Grant on her TV screen.

Leticia: But, anyways, yes, so back to what you were saying about Micki Grant’s career in musical theatre… So, should we dive in and talk a little bit about Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope? The musical that, I would say, launched her musical theatre career, in terms of composing, and writing, and acting.

Jordan: Yeah. Let’s do it. Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. This particular musical… And it’s so funny because I’m looking… I have a poster of that musical right on my wall. So I’m just like, “Uh, yes.” Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope… It is a collaboration between Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll. This particular show came to be because they were working together in New York.

Vinnette Carroll had her theatre collective, the Urban Arts Corps, which was founded in order to support a Black and Latiné youth in New York. So her and Micki Grant began their collaboration. And I remember hearing an interview with Micki Grant where she was talking about this music. No one thought it could be a musical. But Vinnette Carroll did and was like, “We should…” Hearing these songs that Micki Grant had composed was like, “Let’s make this into an actual musical,”—not, actual musical, but you know what I mean—and, “Let’s make this into a production that we will retool.” The very first production started in the company’s theatre in Manhattan. But it eventually found a home, here—well, here for me—in Washington, D.C., at the Ford’s Theatre, where it gains commercial and critical success there.

Leticia: Yeah, and I think it’s often considered a musical revue. Right? Which is—

Jordan: Mm-hmm.

Leticia: —a bit different. You know, language, theatre language… Can you describe what makes it a musical revue? Because I’m not necessarily well-versed in the world of musical theatre, all the way, to understand the differences.

Jordan: It’s a form of non-linear storytelling, when it comes to musical theatre. So revues are kind of a collection of songs that are thematically linked, in many ways, but don’t often have this kind of traditional or conventional book, in terms of like, there’s a character that you’re following, and they have this kind of hero’s journey, or it’s a boy-meets-girl, or whatever it is. A revue is moreso thinking about connecting aspects of a particular theme or a collection of stories, kind of vignettes, connecting them in that way rather than like, “Okay, here is the story of Leticia and her journey throughout her life.”

And, in terms of the revue, the revue has a really long history within Black musical theatre. It is the form of theatre that most Black musicals were created in. So you’re looking at something [like] Shuffle Along. You’re looking at the shows that are on the Urban Circuit or what people refer to as the Chitlin’ Circuit, and really creating music that Black people are connecting through that theme, rather than trying to place a narrative onto it.

It doesn’t mean there’s not characters. It doesn’t mean that there’s not a story. It just means that it’s not so much about following a particular group of people, or a person, but rather thinking critically about thematic things.

Leticia: I will also say, in your explanation, what really came to the fore for me was a conversation I think we’ve been having, a while on Daughters of Lorraine, which is about form. And, specifically, the form of musical theatre and its relationship to Black theatremakers. And I think there’s something really interesting about the longer legacy that you’re identifying for us. That’s a sort of, broader conversation about, what about Black theatre and musical theatre is… I don’t want to say incompatible. But it doesn’t quite fit in the way that we might think of it. So form, and going with a non-linear storyline and themes, is something that feeds more these topics, or the stories that want to be told within this particular of musical theatre. I don’t know. It’s just something that I’m thinking about, and one of the reasons why I’m so excited about your work, really pushing us to think about if there is a Black theatre musical form or, is the musical form something else we just, kind of, throw away?

I know, specifically with Micki Grant, you had a little Twitter spat with someone over Micki Grant. It wasn’t really no beef, like that. But you know what I’m saying. Someone tried to correct you about it being a musical revue. And that’s why it “didn’t count,” as… What was it? Was it the first show to have a Black woman creative team, or something like that? Or a women’s—

Jordan: Um, yeah. Shoutout to that man. You started me on this path. So, it’s your fault. No, I’m just kidding. Yeah. No, I remember there being a conversation where a white theatre journalist had tweeted about Waitress being the first team of women on Broadway to have a musical, or like an all-woman creative team.

Like, let alone… Even beyond looking back to Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll, which is what I tweeted, there’ve been a lot of women creative teams, even since then. So the tweet was just ahistorical, in many ways. But, really, I’m looking at the… I tweeted, in saying, “Don’t forget about Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll, whose musical was in 1972 on Broadway.” I didn’t even say that they were the first. I just said, “There’ve been women creating musicals together, already. So don’t count these people out.” And I was met with a response of, “Well, this doesn’t really count as a true book because it didn’t have a real book.”

Despite Micki Grant being nominated for Best Book of a Musical, he took it upon himself to say that. And that really did start me down the beaten path than I am, now, about thinking about form and structure, because I did want to understand what counts in musical theatre, in terms of what makes a musical, a musical. And I think that, looking at Micki Grant’s body of work, like Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, and other works that she created, really starts you down thinking about: What is it that I’m looking for within a musical?

And, also, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, I would say it doesn’t get credited as such. But I feel like it really kind of, took us down, in the ’70s, a path of decentralized musical theatre. So, obviously, I need to do more research on this. So this is just me, off the dome. But I’m looking at later musicals, like A Chorus Line, like Hair, more ensemble-based musicals. And I feel like Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, being at the top of [the] decade, really was part of that trailblazing way to rethink musical theatre.

Leticia: Yeah. So, just to give our listeners some more context about Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, it’s often described as a mixture of gospel, jazz, funk, soul, calypso, even some soft rock in there. And some of the themes that come through the music is tenements, slum lords, student protests, Black Power, feminism.

And Clive Barnes, in the review of the opening production, describes it as “a mixture of a block party and a revival meeting. It is the unexpected that is the most delightful. Last night, at the Playhouse Theatre, a new musical came clapping, stomping, and stamping in. It’s fresh, fun, and Black. Black heroes, such as Flip Wilson and Godfrey Cambridge, and even Bella Abzug and Ralph Nader, are mentioned. And the show makes wry mockery of the changing times, and celebrates the rise of Black aspiration and achievements. The show is full of talent, working together with cohesion, rarely encountered outside the dance world.”

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