Fort Worth — Frustrations may seem high for the characters in Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, a spectacularly fun musical with a strong social message, but the vehicle for change keeps moving forward. Jubilee Theatre revives the musical, which features music and lyrics by Micki Grant and was conceived by Vinnette Carroll, who also directed its 1972 Broadway debut.
The 1970s was still a time of change following the unrest of the Civil Rights Movement in the prior decades; and even though Jim Crow laws had been struck down, the fight for equality was far from over. Any complacency with societal “norms” of the past could no longer be put up with.
The musical jumps right into the title song with one vocalist behind a soft, silhouetted screen, who is quickly joined by the ensemble. You can tell right from the get-go that this show will be filled with energy and intensity, but also range. Under Akiń Babatundé’s astute direction, Geno Young’s musical direction and Shate Edwards’ creative choreography, it moves from song to song seamlessly.
The musical is light on dialogue and uses the songs to get the message across. To make sure the contemporary relevance isn’t lost, Babatundé brings in the ghost of Trayvon Martin near the beginning and the end. He wears a hoodie and walks solemnly through the ensemble cast, standing briefly in the audience before disappearing. It is a haunting image.
The musical’s movement through space and time is not linear, and there’s not really a taste of the ‘70s until the opening of the second act. In this staging, the music has more of a contemporary feel with some twinges of gospel. Because this musical is so driven by the music, there is much to sink your eyes and ears into and you may even find yourself clapping and singing along during the show.
The cast as a whole is vivaciously talented and each performer showcases a different range in voice and expression. Spirituality is palpable in “So Glad” as the actors move about the stage in long, red choir robes; and there’s more of the hard knock street life in “Ghetto Life.” We get a taste of the candid and raw voice of social and political questioning in the song “Time Brings About a Change” with bright interjections as well as “Questions,” sung so powerfully by Ebony Marshall-Oliver and furthered by “They Keep Coming,” which has a rhythmic, poetic feel that evokes smoke-filled coffee houses.
Voices coming through layers of scrim is an interesting comment on the blurred lines of emotion and conscience—the idea that we sometimes run from the truth or shy away from what is considered right because we are too afraid of change and confrontation. The delicate fabric serves as a veil to many of the solo numbers, which often begin there but quickly move out into the fully lit center space (set by Rodney Dobbs; lighting by Nikki DeShea Smith) in such songs as “Billy’s Blue” (performed by the wonderful Chimberly Carter Byrom), “My Love So Good” sung by Kyndal Robertson with an incredibly soothing timbre; and “So Little Time” by Ebony Marshall-Oliver. The standout vocals of Malcolm Beaty offer a taste of the strife between the sexes in the songs “A Man Thinks” and “My Name is Man.”
The audience is thoroughly entertained, but there are still lingering questions, highlighted by reappearance of Trayvon’s ghost. Have we moved towards improving the racial divide in this country? Even through our growing pains, we may be bothered but we do indeed cope. In our stronger moments, we do more than that—we use our voices to move towards positive change.