If it's possible for a piece of theater to serve both as a timeless commentary and a perfect embodiment of its era, "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" fits the bill.
The wildly entertaining 1971 musical revue about the lives and struggles of black Americans, with music and lyrics by Mikki Grant, has received a spirited makeover by Buffalo choreographer and director Carlos Jones. It runs through March 25 in the Paul Robeson Theatre.
There is a tinge of disappointment to the timelessness of this particular piece: Its continued resonance relies, in part, on just how cruel and stubborn the structural racism Grant wrote about remains.
When actor Chalma Warmley says that he has "been around for centuries and you don't know me yet," as Jones wrote in his program note, "a collective exhale filled the rehearsal hall and the cast members eyed each other in that unspoken acknowledgement of common understanding."
There's a reason Jones dispensed with this sentiment right up front. It was so he and his enthusiastic cast could delve into Grant's eclectic material with total commitment, boundless energy and profound dedication to unearthing the essential joy, humor and optimism of the material.
Their work beams with pride, elevating the score and bringing it firmly into the present.
The sense of forward motion that suffuses the production begins immediately, with "I Gotta Keep Movin'," a resonant commentary on persistence sung with a spiritual inflection by London Lee and a gifted cast of singers and dancers.
From there, we take a trip into Harlem, into the life of Billie Holiday, into a Sunday church service and into a club where we witness the evolution of dance through the decades. Though there is no plot to tie them together, the scenes don't feel disconnected.
A standout performance comes from Taneisha Facey, who sings "So Little Time," an emotional ballad reflecting on the uselessness of hate, with deep sensitivity and excellent command of her instrument. As Billie Holiday and a number of other characters, Deatra White Paris easily shifts gears from deep pathos to highly effective comic relief.
And in the updated "History of Dance" number – lest you thought it began as a viral YouTube video – Kayla Henigan is irresistible as she leads the cast through everything from the Charleston to the Robot.
Jones' talent as a choreographer, able to lead a cast with varying skill levels through this challenging, dance-driven show, is everywhere apparent. His work fits the eclectic nature of Grant's score, which hop-scotches from folk to blues and spiritual to Calypso in a way that surprisingly does not feel disjointed.
Harlan Penn's set is characteristically appropriate to the material, providing a multi-tiered, comfortably spacious backdrop of warm wood for the cast to occupy.
A video screen projecting images of civil rights marches, successful black Americans and even local politicians like George K. Arthur and Mayor Byron W. Brown adds a welcome sense of contemporary importance to what might strike some as a dated piece of theater. It is a bit hyperactive, however, and would benefit from fewer, better-chosen images so as not to distract too much from the live performers.
However you look at it – as an embodiment of its era, an acknowledgement of the struggles ahead or just a great night of music and dance – "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" delights.
3 stars (out of 4)
"Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" runs through March 25 in the Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 884-2013 or visit aaacbuffalo.org.