If you don't see it now, Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, now in production at Freedom Theatre, is one of those shows you won't see staged professionally again soon.
One reason: Since the founding of Freedom Theatre in 1966 and the opening of Cope in 1971, the number of African American professional theaters in this country has dwindled from 67 to five. Mikki Grant's original lyrics for this sung-through piece focused on black urban life in her time, dealing with protests, feminism, and living conditions in the ghettos. In Freedom Theatre's powerful, poignant production, director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj has updated Grant's original scenario, transporting it to a local, contemporary story: That of community members protesting Temple University's purchase of and decision to tear down William Penn High School.
This update not only gives the piece local and contemporary flavor but also increases the stakes. Protestors carry signs that read "Gentrification = Colonization" and "Philly's Not for Sale," and the musical now invokes the displacement and discrimination portrayed in both Raisin in the Sun and its modern counterpart, the 2010 play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris.
Grant's original songs still resonate, particularly the timeless "Gotta Keep Movin' " and "Time Brings a Change," which focus on the unending battle to rectify racial injustice. In the shuffled song arrangements, Tamara Anderson and Nicole Stacie turned both numbers into showstoppers.
Maharaj updates the lyrics of the latter song to include names of those that today inspire change in the African American community and to list, sadly, the names of those who have perished in encounters with police or other violence. Horribly, it would almost be possible these days to update the list nightly, a list that now includes San Bernadino, Pulse Nightclub, and Alton Sterling.
The design team's work highlighted the tensions that persist between North Philadelphia residents and their gentrifying new neighbors. Dirk Durosette, Maharaj, and James Smallwood's set shows storefronts overrun with litter, and Andrew Cowles' lighting blacks out behind a strobe after the multiple shootings woven into Doug Horvat's sound design.
Not all is bleak. The production is full of humor and hope, drawing on the comic elements in "Goin' to Town this Morning," for example, and led by Marquis D. Gibson's winning performance, which smiles through the flirty "My Love's So Good." Four dancers blaze through spectacular choreography by Maharaj and Julian Darden (the latter's contributions open Act 2 with an athletic fusion of ballet and hip-hop). A potent a cappella choral number ("Good Vibrations") illustrates that here, it's community that matters.