Review: ‘Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope’ at New Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia

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Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope is a musical that’s not produced very often – but in its day, it was a huge hit. Opening on Broadway in 1972, it ran for over 1,000 performances and earned four Tony nominations. It had an all-African American cast, but it also had significant African American talent behind the scenes in Composer/Lyricist/Bookwriter Micki Grant and Director/Creator Vinnette Carroll.

Nicole Stacie and Tamara Anderson. Photo by http://www.ethimofoto.net/
Nicole Stacie and Tamara Anderson. Photo by http://www.ethimofoto.net/

So with that pedigree – and a score by Grant that offers an appetizing mix of soul, funk, rock, gospel and calypso – why isn’t this show seen more often? In part, it’s because it’s less a full-fledged musical than a revue, and one with very little dialogue.

And its songs – many of them about issues like racism, poverty, feminism, and the Vietnam War – may seem stuck in the seventies to some people. (Lyrics like “Dying for country, dying for home… Before we lose our humanity / Stop the insanity” show how much Grant was concerned with spreading her political ideology.)

But Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s production at New Freedom Theatre shows that with a little judicious updating, Don’t Bother Me can work extremely well.

First, Maharaj and his crew have updated the references to include recent tragedies on an individual scale (the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile) and on a larger scale (the mass shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino). The Black Lives Matter movement is invoked repeatedly throughout the show.

And secondly, Maharaj and company have added a local, personal dimension. William Penn High School, which stood right across Broad Street from Freedom Theatre for nearly half a century, was demolished a few months ago to make way for a new Temple University athletic facility. Temple’s ongoing encroachment into the community is a sore spot for the people of North Philly, and the demolition triggered widespread protests.

And now, the demolition has triggered this musical. The show’s setting has been transplanted to North Philadelphia; the song “Harlem Streets” has been re-christened “Philly Streets.”

When you walk into Freedom’s John E. Allen, Jr. Theatre, you’ll hear an audio documentary with voices taking Temple to task for building the athletic facility, for raising tuition, and for proposing a football stadium that will require levelling still more of North Philly. (The ouster of the school’s president this week is mentioned too.)

Then, once Don’t Bother Me begins, the moments between nearly every song are filled with the 12-member cast carrying picket signs, raising their fists in black power salutes, and chanting slogans like “Save our neighborhood,” “Philly’s not for sale” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Temple’s gotta go.” Eventually more familiar slogans like “Black lives matter” fill the air too.

In short, this is one angry show. But it has a lot to be angry about. It’s fiercely, proudly political theater on a scale rarely seen these days – and it’s bracing to be surrounded by it.

During Act Two, the character of a pro-Temple protestor is introduced – although her arguments in favor of development are never explained. Instead, the production uses her character, and the song “It Takes a Whole Lot of Human Feeling,” to show how people can get along even when they hold different opinions.

Of course, as this year’s campaign shows, nonstop political discourse can get pretty tiresome, even if you agree with the message. Don’t Bother Me sometimes falls into that trap. Its arguments are repetitive and never get developed beyond simplistic sloganeering. But the show uses invigorating, floor-shaking choreography by Maharaj and Julian Darden to pump up the crowd, and it’s filled with a hard-working cast of performers you’ll be hearing more from in the future.

Nicole Stacie, a formidable performer with a bluesy belt (and a killer Oprah Winfrey impression), is the standout in this cast. Her rendition of the pleading “So Little Time” reverberates with emotion. Tamara Anderson and Raquel Mollineau impress throughout, especially on the a cappella sections of their duet “We’ve Gotta Keep Movin’.”

Marquis Gibson has a warm baritone and an engaging stage presence; he and the appealing Lauren Shaye make a good pair on a number of duets. (The love story between their characters, told through song, is the closest thing Don’t Bother Me has to a plot.) And Matt Holbert’s pleasing tenor deserves more attention.

Maharaj’s busy direction fills the stage with action; no matter where you look on the stage, there’s always something going on. It’s too bad that the four-piece band and the cramped room’s acoustics make the lyrics on many of the group numbers hard to make out.

 The Company. Photo by Photo by http://www.ethimofoto.net/
The Company. Photo by http://www.ethimofoto.net/

Millie Hiibel’s widely varied costumes capture a cross-section of society: a homeless woman (Anderson) is covered in rags, a businessman (Gibson) wears a sharp suit, a waitress (Stacie) is dressed for her shift at a diner, Holbert is dressed like the nerdy Steve Urkel, and other actors wear everything from a t-shirt to a dashiki.

The set, designed by Dirk Durossette, James Smallwood, and Maharaj, is a miniaturized version of William Penn High School. The brutalist building’s hulking concrete slabs never seemed particularly beautiful while it stood, but as depicted here, with its panels starting to crumble, it seems forlorn and in need of love. Much like the neighborhood that surrounds it.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.

Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope plays through Saturday, July 30,  2016 at the John E. Allen, Jr. Theatre at New Freedom Theatre – 1346 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA.  For tickets call the box office at (888) 802-8998, or purchase them online.