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—
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.”
So Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope was highly successful in that it was getting good reviews. It was nominated, like you mentioned at the top of the episode, for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book, Best Direction. It won a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album. Like you said, Micki Grant, the first female composer to win in this category. So it's a very highly successful musical. But it's not done often.
2016, we see a concert performance, the Encores! Off-Center Series at New York City Center, directed by Savion Glover. But it's not done often, even though it had so much success. And I think there is still an audience for the work of Micki Grant.
Jordan: Absolutely. I mean, in the Encores! production, which... I hate that I didn't get to see that. That production really... I heard a lot of people talking about it. But they updated it with, sort of current cultural conversations, things like Black Lives Matter, et cetera. And the ongoing relevance of those topics and the structure of the musical being such a malleable form of the revue, where you can infuse it with... Like, it can change. It's not locked in. And I think that, that's part of what makes it so Black, as Clive Barnes said in his review.
I think that's what makes it so Black is that it's not fixed, that there is an elasticity to the way that, that musical can move. And, also, it had to tour. Right? So I know that a lot of musicals tour. But musical theatre touring is a bit different. So they're like in residence, in particular places for particular amounts of time.
But Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope had to go to a bunch of different places. It was in Washington, D.C. It was in Philly. Then it went to New York. And I would assume that the reasoning behind a lot of its structure is for that need to travel, and to be constantly on the move, and being able to really point that out.
I also want to say, too, that the choreographer for the original Broadway production is none other than George Faison, who would go on to be the choreographer for The Wiz. So, Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope was a really... It was really groundbreaking, truly. And it's a shame that it doesn't get talked about or produced as much. I believe the St. Louis Black Rep Company did it, a couple of seasons ago. It's something I would love to see done more because I think that it still holds relevance for the conversations we're still having.
Leticia: Definitely so. I would recommend any listeners. The entire album is on YouTube. Go take a listen to it. Musically, it's really interesting.
Leticia: Yes, rich. Great word. Rich, very rich. You mentioned “They Keep Coming,” which was also like... That song specifically struck me. So I would highly, highly recommend it that folks teach Micki Grant. Let's shift, now, to her, I would argue, second most known musical, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, a Broadway musical that's based off of the Biblical book of Matthew.
Micki Grant teams up with Alex Bradford for music and lyrics. Then, we have Vinnette Carroll, writing the book, and also directing. Debuts in 1976 at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City and, later on, Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 1977, closes in 1978, after 429 performances. There is a revival, very quickly, 3 years later, after it... Sorry, 2 years later, after it closes in 1980. And we get the debut star of none other than Jennifer Holliday, herself. Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. What is its relevance within the theatrical body of work that Micki Grant gives us?
Jordan: Yeah. I think it's really consistent, I think, with Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope in terms of the sonic style. It's, kind of, looser structure. So there's not a kind of... We're still getting revue style, in terms of a collection of songs that are thematically linked, rather than just one story. But I do want to point out that Your Arms Too Short to Box with God also starred none other than Al Green, who actually got nominated for a Tony, for his work on that production. And I believe he also starred with Patti LaBelle. So imagine going to see that. I love that.
But yeah, I think that, again, is musically similar, in that it has that gospel feel. It is based on the book of Matthew, has that strong gospel, soulful, bluesy kind of sonic feel. And also, the phrase comes from James Weldon Johnson's novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. And there's a phrase in there: “Young man, young man, your arms are too short to box with God. But Jesus spake in a parable. And He said, ‘A certain man had two sons.’ Jesus didn't give this man a name. But His Name is God Almighty. And Jesus didn't call these sons by name. But every young man, everywhere, is one of these two sons.”
So, thinking about this particular musical is that it's really bringing that down home gospel feel onto Broadway. It's not... You know, before then, that's not really something that you would see on a Broadway stage. Right? This musical... I mean, later on, we get things like Jesus Christ Superstar and other musicals that are thinking about religion in particular way. But this is really, kind of, dealing with the head-on. And I think that it's... Yeah, it's a really fascinating piece that—
Leticia: It's giving us Black gospel. Right? It's giving us—
Leticia: —sort of like, the sort of sonic specificities of Black church, in that we might see remnants of in something like The Wiz. But it made me think about what correlations there may be, or what research possibilities are there for thinking about something like the Black church, and the Black church's own legacy of theatre. I was curious if there's a longer legacy that we can track with Black musical theatre that is rooted somewhat in the church because I think Micki Grant really captures that within the music of it, the call-and-response that is throughout the entire music, the ensemble-ness of it. It just made me really think about: Is there more to this relationship—specifically with the Black church and musical theatre, and what musical theatre, perhaps, borrows, or takes from, or pulls from—that we can find remnants in the Black church? I don't know. That was just sort of a quick thought that I had when I was listening to the music.
Jordan: Yeah. And I think what you're pointing to, specifically, also, is the relationship between musical theatre and popular music. The Black church has been shaping Black sound for a really long, really, really long time. And it seems pretty fitting that, that would be no different for musical theatre. And I remember just watching Micki Grant's interview with Charlayne Woodard, from the Dramatists Guild.
One, highly recommend everyone watch interview. I mean, an absolute delight. I was looking through the comments of that video. And so many people were talking about, “Oh, my gosh. I remember seeing this particular musical when I was in Chicago,” or Philly, or, “I was obsessed with the record. I'd play it out. I knew all the words.” So I think that Micki Grant was also a very successful writer and composer for pop music. So I think that you're getting that within Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. And also, I want to point out something, too, is that, like I said earlier, we get musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar. We get Godspell. We get Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat. I believe that's what it is. And something that this musical did, in 1977, is... think about Black people and people of color within this religious context.
It's not just this whitewashed story, or cast with entirely white actors with a token, here and there. Right? It is really, kind of, rethinking how we look at the book of Matthew, how we look at a figure like Jesus, and how we interrogate those particular biases when it comes to how people are represented within those religious organizations. So I think that it's really interesting. And I'm curious as to why this doesn't get some revivals often, like a Jesus Christ Superstar or a Godspell, when it's kind of having that really big project already, and created by two Black women.
Leticia: Yeah, all Black cast.
Jordan: And I want to point out, too, is that she uses a Greek chorus within that particular musical. But like puts that Vinnette Carroll signature onto it. And I think just to her—
Leticia: —Micki Grant.
Jordan: Her— Oh, yeah. Well, Vinnette Carroll writing the book.
Leticia: Oh, Okay, okay.
Jordan: And then the collaborative efforts of Micki Grant in the song and storytelling also... it just... I really feel like I can't talk about them separately because... Maybe it's because I'm just in the throes of this dissertation research on them. But because their collaboration was so crucial to, I think, the success of both of those musicals. Anyways, everyone should check out that particular musical.
Leticia: No, I think you're right with their partnership. Like you see a sort of a Vinnette Carroll and a Micki Grant. I think of some of the other great duos that we identify with within musical theatre. And I definitely see them as also one of those duos. So I think that's really important to solidify. And we think about the Urban Arts Corps as something that is really, highly influential in theatre. But, let's shift to some of her other lesser-known work. So we have something like Phillis, the Musical, yes, based on Phillis Wheatley. We have Working, the Musical, which you had a chance to serve as a dramaturg on.
Jordan: I did.
Leticia: We have a musical based on George Washington Carver. So we have these other musicals that Micki Grant worked on, that some of us may not necessarily even knew that she worked on. Also, interesting that two of the figures are historical figures. So, as we get something like a Hamilton, and an Assassins, that play on historical figures, we have Micki Grant already telling history through the musical theatre form.
Jordan: Absolutely. And yeah, I did serve as a dramaturg on Working. And I really, really wanted to highlight that because, actually, I was working on it, unfortunately, when the news of her passing was released to the public. And I really wanted to highlight that, within that production, to think about this, I would say, Black feminist legacy that is within that musical because whenever I talk about Micki Grant's work, I think about the impact—yes—of the musicals that she wrote. But one of the most impactful songs for me in Working, is Micki Grant's song, “Cleanin' Women,” where she's talking about the legacy of Black women being domestic workers, and laborers, and housekeepers, and things like that.
And the lyrics to that song... And I really encourage you all to go listen to, and read, those lyrics, where she's talking about: “I want to sleep ’til noon/I don't want to be pushin’ another broom/And I have this beautiful, smart daughter/And she'll never have to push anyone's broom/She's going to be singin’ her own tune/And that day can't come too soon.” I mean, I'm butchering the lyrics. But I really... I lift up that song because it has that very signature—what I am starting to see as a signature—of Micki Grant's bouncy piano. I don't know. I'm not a music theorist. So I can’t describe it in those theoretical terms. But like, it's a very bouncy piano. And it has these beautiful and heartbreaking lyrics. But there also is a lot of joy behind the actual composition of how it sounds.
So I'm just always interested in her artistry in that way and the discord, and, I would say, a very intentional discord but a discord nonetheless. And it's just something I want to continue to probe, when I'm looking at her work. But I just wanted to uplift that particular song because it really, really impacts me whenever I listen to it, which is often.
Leticia: Yeah, definitely. I also think of when we were doing research for this: We briefly came upon her musical, Phillis. And, unfortunately, we weren't able to find any remnants of the song. But, apparently, it was a huge hit Off-Broadway, 1986. And the plan was for it to open on Broadway. But, in an American Theatre magazine interview, Micki Grant talks about how having a white director attached to the project, who didn't know who Phillis Wheatley was, destroyed the project. And she says... and I quote, “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life. I can't even talk about it. But I have to write about it. I want everyone to know about it before I die. I want it publicized, and in a book, how they destroyed this wonderful show. I want it known. I still want the play done. Everyone should know about Phillis Wheatley. She was the first published Black poet.”
Jordan: And I think there's a lot in that interview but, specifically, on this particular show, that I was not even aware of, that Phillis Wheatley had a musical written about her, was a sort of, I think, larger conversation that we, in theatre, are having about who can direct what. And I'm not someone who's like, “Well, if you don't have every identity marker, you can't do it.” But I do think there is something to say about who can be stewards of a work. If you don't know who Phillis Wheatley [is], then, why are you directing a musical on Phillis Wheatley?
And, so often, I have seen, specifically, shows that are not written by white composers, librettists, and book writers, literally cast aside, and destroyed because it doesn't have the right director attached to it. And I'm always curious about, when it happened to Micki Grant, what we can say about what is the role of the director in a new musical theatre production? I know you are a specialist in new play development, specifically in musical theatre.
Yeah, I am all... I mean, I cannot tell you, Leticia, how shocked I am about the lack of Black women directors making it to Broadway, but just, even at the regional level, that we don't get Black women to direct musicals. Truly, it's so wild to me that, that is the case. I mean, you'll look at musicals that are written by Black women, that are composed by Black women, that have Black women on the creative team, that are starring Black women. And it's like, “Okay, sure. Yes, Black women can be performers,” because who's singing better than a Black woman? Nobody.
But, then, it's, “Okay, sure, they can be writers. They can write a book. Okay, sure, they can be composers.” But it just feels like directing is like, next level. I would need to double-check this because, now, I'm just talking. But it's like, I don't think that a Black woman has ever won a Tony for a Best Directing. I mean, I know they've been nominated because Vinnette Carroll has been nominated. But I don't believe that a Black woman's ever won a Tony for directing on Broadway. And that is an absolute, absolute shame, an absolute shame.
It continues to shock me, again, even at the regional level, that we don't get Black women to direct musicals. And I don't know why that feels like the thing that is most gatekept from Black women, is particularly musical theatre. And I just... It's an absolute travesty in my opinion because there're so many talented Black women directors out there. But they're just not given an opportunity to do that work.
Leticia: Yeah, I agree with you—
Jordan: I just went [on] a whole diatribe.
Leticia: No, I agree with you. And I think it feeds directly into something else that I want us to talk about. And I know this is your research area and something you're really committed to identifying, is Black women creators on Broadway. Who do we think of, currently, that lives in a legacy of Micki Grant but are, sort of, up-and-coming writers, composers, librettists, that are working in the form of musical theatre?
Jordan: Yeah, I mean, her work has not, yet, made it to Broadway. And I say, yet. But I would be remiss if just not uplifting the work of Kirsten Childs, which is just phenomenal. I know that Micki Grant was a huge inspiration to her, to become a composer and librettist, in her own right. So, Broadway producers, if you're listening to this podcast, get on it, please, with Kirsten Childs’ musicals.
Okay, but, in terms of Black women creators on Broadway, currently, it's looking okay, when we look at the landscape. And I say, okay, which means it's just been better than it was. But it's still not great. So, looking at the Tony Awards, this year, we have quite a few Black women nominees, not just on the performance side. And I know that I had looked up a statistic a couple of years back. Its number has probably shifted, since then. But, at the time, which I believe was in 2018, or 2019, one of those years, that only thirty-six Black women had won Tonys. And thirty-three of those were for performing. And the other three were for producing. So there's that.
Obviously, I've had to look at the updated statistics around that. But I'm sure they haven't drastically changed from that number, to be honest with you. And, then when you look at the particular awards, like Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score, again, something you said earlier about, why aren't Black women able to be stewards of a work? Why have there only been six Black women in each of those categories to be nominated for that?
And I want to name those Black women. So, for Score, we have Ann Duquesnay was the second, after Micki Grant, to be nominated. She was on the creative team for Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk which, I believe, had a book by George C. Wolfe and was also directed by him. We have Brenda Russell, who was on the music team for The Color Purple. We have Yolanda Adams, who contributed some music to SpongeBob SquarePants Musical. And then, most recently, the newest addition is Masi Asare, who is the co-lyricist on Paradise Square, which is currently running on Broadway. And—
Leticia: Shoutout to Masi.
Jordan: Shoutout to Masi.
Leticia: We got to get you on the podcast, Masi.
Jordan: Yes, if you're listening, come join us. We want to know all the things. And then, for Best Book of a Musical, we have Vinnette Carroll, who was nominated for Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, along with Micki Grant, who was also nominated for Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, for book.
Jordan: Then, we have, years later... I mean, 1977, and then 2020, or 2019, you have Dominique Morisseau for Ain't Too Proud. And I can't do quick math. But that's a really long time. That's a lifetime.
Then, we have Katori Hall, who was on the writing team for Tina the Musical. And then, most recently, the two newest additions to that category were Lynn Nottage, who wrote the book for MJ: The Musical, and Christina Anderson, who was one of the librettists for Paradise Square.
So, nine or ten Black women to be nominated in those particular categories. I just think that, that is so, so, so wild to think, that Black women have been shuttered out of whole categories because people don't trust their words and their work to even be able to give them the opportunity to get to that point. So, yeah, it's a shame.
Leticia: It's a shame. It's something that definitely needs to change. I always think to, “Okay, we had the “racial reckoning within theatre.” And, as many shows have announced their closing dates, it will be interesting to see what shows end up at these Broadway houses. And the place for Black women to write a book, or score, for an original new musical, like even looking—
Leticia: —at the book. Ain't Too Proud's about the Temptations. Katori Hall, Tina Turner, Lynn Nottage, MJ. These are all figures that actually lived. And we love it. We've seen Ain't Too Proud twice. Loved it. We're going to New York—
Jordan: Loved both.
Leticia: —to go to see. So you know. We give it up. We give it up. But I'm also curious about Black women creators’ ability to create new musicals, as someone like Micki Grant did for us. So yeah, I think we celebrate Micki Grant in what she gave us during her time here, on earth. And I'm excited about your work, and your scholarship. That's really going to illuminate even more of the legacy. Like we were talking before we started recording. And we were like, “Wow, it was actually really difficult to find critical articles about her work or even research about her.”
And it's really a shame. It's really a shame that she hasn't been taken up more seriously in academic scholarship. And it takes something like her death in order for her to get her New York Times op-ed, and things like that. But, as always, we honor our ancestor, Micki Grant. Asé.
Leticia: And we're happy that we still get to encounter you in your lyrics and your music.
Leticia: With that being said, let's go to our reading list. What do we have for the good folks—
Jordan: I'm going to call this our Reading and Listening List, because I'm going to be uplifting musicals. Obviously, we want you to engage Micki Grant's work, that's published. So we have Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope. Please, please read it and listen to it. Then, we have Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, by Vinnette Carroll. And there are two other musicals by Black women that I think that you all should encounter and engage in your work. And that is Polk County, by none other than Zora Neale Hurston. And Bella: An American Tall Tale, by Kirsten Childs. Both of those musicals also follow the form and structure of the revue that Micki Grant was so, so, so genius at crafting.
Then, for some books, we have Sistuhs in the Struggle: An Oral History of Black Arts Movement Theater and Performance by La Donna Forsgren. I believe that La Donna interviews Micki Grant in that book. That interview is absolutely fantastic, as well as the rest of the book. So please read that.
Then, we have a couple of articles that are not necessarily focused on Micki Grant but are by Black women scholars who are engaging Black musical theatre from this Black feminist perspective. And one of those is by La Donna Forsgren, and it's her article, “The Wiz Redux, or Why Queer Black Feminist Spectatorship and Politically Engaged Popular Entertainment Continue to Matter.” And, “Vocal Colour in Blue: Early Twentieth-Century Black Women Singers As Broadway's Voice Teachers” by Masi Asare. So please check out those articles, and books, and musicals, and continue to engage the work of Black musical theatre by Black people.
Leticia: Yes, definitely. And I just want to add to that, wait for Jordan Ealey's articles, books, dissertation, specifically focused on Black women creators and composers. So make sure you keep an eye out for that, and that you engage with Jordan's work.
Jordan: Not too much.
Leticia: Yeah, Jordan. Yes, too much. Yes, too much.
Jordan: Not too much.
Leticia: So we are at time. Another episode of Daughters of Lorraine in the book. Jordan, always a pleasure.
Jordan: Yes, absolutely. It was great talking to you, Leticia, about someone that I could go on about for literally hours. So it's a wonder that we're able to keep it in this timeframe.
Leticia: Yes, definitely. And we will see you all next week.
Leticia: This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We're your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan: —and Jordan Ealey. On our next episode, we'll discuss reproductive freedom in Black theatre.* You definitely won't want to miss this episode. In the meantime, if you're looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter @dolorrainepod, P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.
Leticia: The Daughters of Lorraine Podcast is produced, as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series, and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcast” and subscribe to receive new episodes.
Jordan: If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the Commons.
*The next episode of Daughters of Lorraine will focus on the Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Fat Ham. The episode on reproductive freedom will air at a later date.
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