Nov 19, 2020

The irrepressible Micki Grant: award-winning composer, actor, and trailblazer

Richarda Abrams (l) interviews Micki Grant (r) over Zoom.


Micki Grant is always first in line: the first Black to write commercial jingles, to have a non-silent role in a commercial, to get a contract role on daytime television. The first woman to write the lyrics, score, and libretto for a Broadway musical, and the first woman to win a Grammy Award for a Broadway score.

Maybe she gets that drive from her mother: awarded number one salesperson at her company (she was also the only Black salesperson). Maybe she inherited it from her father (a talented musician who played the piano by ear), who after years of working for other people finally opened his own barbershop.

Or maybe, that force of will that repeatedly catapults her to the front is 100% Micki Grant. 

In an Oral History Project produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser for The League of Professional Theatre Women, Richarda Abrams interviewed Grant about her life, her manifold projects, and her motivation. Abrams, a Black actress, singer, playwright, and producer, has a similar life journey to Grant, making her a fitting interviewer.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Grant knew what she wanted from an early age. Named Minnie after her grandmother, she quickly changed her name to Micki to avoid other children calling her "Minnie Mouse" and making quips about her "mini" size.

Her love for music started at a young age. After taking unsuccessful piano lessons ("I think I took about three," Micki remarked), she turned to a new instrument that suited her better. When her orchestra teacher decided they needed a double bass, Micki volunteered to learn. As she walked to and from school, a tiny 8-year-old girl carrying a huge double bass, everyone would point at her. 

But the voices of the crowd never dissuaded Micki from doing anything--then or later. At 9, she started taking acting lessons from Susan Porché. Soon after, she joined a community theatre, the Center Aisle Players, that performed at the YMCA. According to Grant, the other actors didn't believe in her dream.

“For them it was a hobby," she said. "For me it was an aspiration. They used to say: somebody should talk to that girl, she’s crazy! She thinks she’s gonna be an actress!”

Meanwhile, Grant was hard at work in other pursuits as well. At 12, she published a book of poetry called A String of Pearls. From then on, the woman was nonstop. After studying music and drama in Illinois and Los Angeles, she wrote the jazz song "Pink Shoelaces," which climbed to #3 on the charts--though, as Abrams pointed out, it was #1 in Mexico. When the play she was in (Fly Blackbird) transferred to New York, Grant moved there, too. “I guess they felt sorry for me," she joked. "They gave me a part!”

While getting off the ground as an actor, Grant worked as a receptionist at a radio station. Before long, she was performing on the air in her own series Readings and Writings. She also performed off-Broadway in shows like The Blacks, Brecht on Brecht, and The Cradle Will Rock, acting alongside the likes of James Earl Jones, Jerry Orbach, and Rita Gardner.

In 1963, Grant made her Broadway debut in Langston Hughes' Tambourines to Glory. According to Grant, Hughes encouraged and inspired her as a young artist. 

“We had a special relationship because I was a disciple of his poetry, then he became a playwright, so I sort of followed in his footsteps in a way. But that was one of the greatest things in my life: meeting Langston Hughes.” 

But Grant's career wasn't limited to the stage. In 1966, she joined the cast of NBC's Another World and became the first Black to hold a contract role on daytime television. She played attorney Peggy Nolan on the show for seven years, until 1973. That opened the way for more TV appearances; later, she would perform on Guiding Light, Law & Order, and All My Children. Grant said her family and friends went crazy when they saw her name in the end credits. She repeatedly found herself in a lot of shows where she was the only Black actor, but she was proud to help pave the way for others. 

Then, in 1972, Grant's musical Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope opened on Broadway. The musical won a Drama Desk Award, an Obie, and a Grammy, and was nominated for four Tony Awards. One of those awards, the Drama Desk, was for Grant's performance, because not only did she write the musical--becoming the first woman to write the lyrics, score, and book for a Broadway musical--she also starred in it. “I said: I’m gonna write something good and then star in it!” Grant said. Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope was also a first for Grant's collaborator Vinnette Carroll--the first Black woman to direct on Broadway.

Asked how she felt about the success of her work, Grant said it was deeply gratifying. “I had written those words because I wanted those words to be heard. I wanted them to be understood.”

From there, Grant's career only went up. Soon, she had two national tours running simultaneously. She collaborated again with Carroll on Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (which earned another Grammy nomination), I'm Laughing but I Ain't Tickled, and other shows. She also collaborated on the Broadway musical Working with Stephen Schwartz, Mary Rodgers, James Taylor, and others.

At one point, Grant had two Broadway shows running simultaneously: Your Arms Too Short to Box with God and It’s So Nice to Be Civilized. Grant said it was "an incredible moment." But more gratifying than her success or popularity was the knowledge that she had put so many Black actors to work.

In the 90s, Grant performed in a national tour of Having Our Say that traveled to more than 68 cities and to Johannesburg, South Africa. She received the Helen Hayes Award for her performance, and later appeared in the CBS film version of Having Our Say. In 1995 she turned her hand to directing. "If you want a test," she said. "That's a test."

Grant's awards include the NAACP Image, the National Black Theatre Festival's Living Legend, the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement, and the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatists Guild of America--among many, many others.

When asked how she maintained her high energy through all these projects, many of which happened simultaneously, Grant admitted she wasn't sure. She said the most difficult part was performing on TV and stage at the same time. But when it all comes at once, she said, you can't say you'll wait and do this next year. You have to do it all. Having people see her work and remember it fueled her to keep going.

Throughout the interview, Grant's dynamism, sense of humor, and passion were apparent. She told aspiring artists to not see their dreams simply as dreams, but as a foretelling of their life.

“If you can see it, if you can visualize it, if you can imagine it in your mind, in your thoughts, and if it’s real to you…then it’s already partly accomplished… Even those things that are standing in your way, if there’s some way you can see around them, then they can be moved. But my point is, you have to dream first, you have to have the big dream, you have to want it. Nothing just drops in our lap, we have to go for it. We have to dream it and make the dream real. I always saw myself doing what I wanted to do before I did it. So dream it first and realize it doesn’t have to remain a dream--it can be a dream come true.”

With so many credits and accomplishments to her name, is her career at an end? Perhaps not. Grant said she'd still love to write a novel, act in a big movie, and maybe even write a musical about Harriet Tubman.

At the end of the interview, alluding to Grant's honorary doctorate, Abrams said with tears in her eyes: "The irrepressible Dr. Micki Grant, I am just so happy that God has blessed us with you!”

Nov 16, 2020

2020 VintAge Awards honor Martha Richards: Founder and President of WomenArts

Martha Richards receiving the 2020 VintAge Award


On November 14, the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition presented the 2020 VintAge Award to Martha Richards, Founder and President of WomenArts: an organization that supports and nurtures women artists worldwide. Dame Rosemary Squire, Co-Founder of the Ambassador Theatre Group and Trafalgar Entertainment, presented the award in a Zoom ceremony that featured speeches and performances by many of the artists Richards has nurtured over her long career.

Those speaking or performing included Paul Tetreault, Alice Tuan, Rebecca Strang, Christine Young, Melinda Pfundstein, Sophie Dowllar, Mary Watkins, Deborah Magdalena, Leslie Shreve, Jennifer Hill, Lydiah Dola, and Shellen Lubin. The ceremony also included video clips highlighting Richards' accomplishments.

In the hour-and-a-half long program, Richards' various friends and mentees discussed their appreciation for her efforts on behalf of the arts, from saving a debt-ridden theatre to starting a fund for female artists. They also discussed her creation of the international holiday SWAN Day (Support Women Artists Now), which recognizes female artists across every discipline.

Many participants testified to Richards' steady involvement in their lives, which went beyond just supporting them financially or giving them press.

Deborah Magdalena, director of SWAN Day Miami and Spoken Soul Festival, said she and her friends call Richards their fairy godmother. She's helped them with every aspect of running an arts organization, from filling out a grant to dealing with bad press.

Chinese American playwright Alice Tuan spoke of how Richards helped find a space for her work when she struggled to fit within the traditional American theatre scene. “I have benefited hugely, richly, ecstatically, from Martha Richards and her support for women artists," Tuan said.

Mary Watkins, a composer and pianist who played a piece called "Comin' Home" in honor of Richards, said she "makes a difference in people’s lives on a grand scale and on a small scale.”

Other performances included Lydiah Dola's song "Swan Girls," Jennifer Hill's "Women Unite, A SWAN Song," and a Zoom singalong with Shellen Lubin's "It's Changing."

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Richards opened the award over Zoom and thanked all the speakers and attendees for their love and support. She said the idea for WomenArts started in the 80s, when she realized that all the big theatres performed plays by men while women were forced to perform in tiny auditoriums and makeshift theatres in garages. What would it mean, she wondered, if these women had the resources they need to get their plays produced? Eventually, WomenArts grew to support women artists not only in theatre, but in the visual, spoken, and musical arts as well. Its influence spread around the world, and to date has raised about $5 million for women artists.

Finally, Richards spoke to the power of women artists to make a divided world whole. Knowing that many artists may feel overwhelmed or unequal to the task, she reminded attendants that WomenArts started at her kitchen table. “There are days when it will seem like your goals are very far away from you, but I want to encourage you all to persevere,” she said.

The 2020 VintAge Awards ceremony will soon be available to view for a small donation on WomenArtsMedia.org.

Nov 14, 2020

Review: World Premiere of Québecoise play 'A Day'

Karl Gregory, Sylvie Yntema, Erica Steinhagen, and Jahmar Ortiz in A Day


What did Erin think?

Four people. One day. Countless opportunities for screwing up.

In the English-language World Premiere of A Day, written by Québecoise playwright Gabrielle Chapdelaine and translated by Josephine George, four seemingly unconnected individuals narrate each other's day. We watch as the four characters roll out of bed (or stay there), prep for the day, head to work, interact with coworkers, navigate relationships, and return home. One man grapples with an estranged relationship while another succumbs to an overwhelming urge to visit his childhood home. One woman's need for human appreciation drives her to desperate measures; another struggles to pierce the fog of depression and insomnia. A single day in the life contains humor, joy, embarrassment, and heartache, all bundled into one messy pile.

Presented by Cherry Artists' Collective and directed by Wendy Dann, A Day streams from the historic State Theatre in Ithaca, NY, blending live performance with video effects and prerecorded footage (Samuel Buggeln directs the video mise en scène). Karl Gregory, Jahmar Ortiz, Erica Steinhagen, and Sylvie Yntema star in this isolated cross-section of the human experience, a string of moments held under a poetic microscope.

An energetic cast brings a delightful script to pulsing, exuberant life. There are moments of sweet, poignant comedy, such as when one character, almost with tears in her eyes, sincerely thanks a grocery store clerk. In one priceless scene, Sylvia Yntema's character picks up a phone left by her coworker and has a hilarious, pathetic conversation over text with her coworker's friend. In another, Erica Steinhagen's character has a joyful awakening after downing hundreds of vitamins.

Corresponding moments of despair punctuate these comedies, such as when a woman explains to her once partner (played by Karl Gregory) that she only wants him to leave her voicemails from now on, so it will be like they're "writing letters" to each other. It's surprisingly easy to sympathize with these characters, especially in our current circumstances. They yearn for connection, purpose, understanding. At the bottom of it all, we sense, they just want to be loved.

Jahmar Ortiz is especially delightful to watch, perhaps because his character is the most vivacious. In the office, he announces in a loud voice that he's leaving, and when his coworker asks, "Where are you going?" He responds with a sweeping gesture, in a stately voice: "To buy cream of wheat!" At home, he fills online shopping carts with unnecessary, expensive items, then, his eyes popping with impetuous joy, decides to buy them all.

In the end, what matters more than the characters' failure to connect are their attempts to try. The play is peppered with references to classic and modern movies, ways for the characters to make sense of their lives and contextualize their struggles. But the playwright's final wish is to watch a new, as yet unmade movie, one that looks different for each of us, but one that we can, at the end of a long stretch of isolation and existential loneliness, enjoy together.


How can I get tickets?

You can purchase tickets to watch one of the live streams on The Cherry Artists Collective website.


How long is it?

The show runs for an hour and a half with no intermission.


What else do I need to know?

A Day runs for five performances from November 13 to 21.


Is it appropriate for all ages?

There's a little swearing.



Your obedient servant,

EJK

Nov 1, 2020

Review: The Pumpkin Pie Show returns with four sinister stories

Clay McLeod Chapman on a stage
Clay McLeod Chapman in The Pumpkin Pie Show. Credit: Antonia Stoyanovich.


What did Erin think?


Some types of entertainment work well on Zoom; others don't. But if there's one thing that might just be better on Zoom than it is in person, it's storytelling. Gone is the stage, the distance between you and the performer, and the other audience members. It's just you (the viewer) and a single performer, their face close to the camera. It feels like you're having a private conversation. Over Zoom, storytelling becomes more immediate, more forceful, and perhaps more uncomfortable.

Clay McLeod Chapman’s The Pumpkin Pie Show capitalizes on all those benefits. Chapman has been performing the macabre storytelling show for 20 years, but 2017 was supposed to be its final year. Then, a pandemic hit, and with everyone stuck at home for Halloween, Chapman decided to resurrect The Pumpkin Pie Show. With performing partner Hanna Cheek, he created a new installment--The Pumpkin Pie Show: Quarantine Tales. On Halloween night, the two performed a series of four short stories via YouTube Live, hosted by Frigid New York.

In the first story, a man whose marriage is falling apart is forced to explore his irrational loathing for baby carrots. That may not sound very scary, but only because you don't know what Chapman is capable of. A writhing mass of possessed baby carrots long past their expiration date can actually be pretty disturbing. With ease and expression born of 20+ years storytelling, Chapman can make any situation funny or frightening, sometimes at the same time. It's an absurd story for an absurd time. 

Hanna Cheek performed two stories about formidable women: one a circus performer with a beautiful face and razor sharp teeth; the other an angelic-looking bride who's actually a twisted murderess. The first woman tells her own story with almost tender nonchalance, calmly narrating horrifying events. She seems to enjoy telling this story, and she's decidedly unconcerned about the havoc she's wreaked on more men than she can count.

In the second story, Cheek portrays a bitter woman whose pain at her sister's betrayal (combined with a significant alcohol intake) has eliminated any filter she may have had. A drunk bridesmaid spills a disturbing secret at her sister's wedding, and as the narrative slowly unfolds, we can only imagine the reactions of the bride, groom, and guests. Riveting and unsettling, it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

My personal favorite story was Chapman's "Nail on the Head," about a man who finds a haunted hammer. Used as a murder weapon by its previous owner, the hammer slowly starts to take hold of its new owner, with devastating results. I always like a good ghost story around Halloween, and this one was reminiscent of several Edgar Allan Poe yarns. Chapman's performance was perfect: mixing humor, unreliability, and terror.

The mental images Chapman and Cheek seared into my mind will stick with me for a while. At the end of the day, The Pumpkin Pie Show: Quarantine Tales testified to the power of good storytelling in any time, place, or format.


What else do I need to know?

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Quarantine Tales was a one-time event for Halloween. But you can check out Frigid New York and The Pumpkin Pie Show websites for future events.



Your obedient servant,

EJK

Oct 1, 2020

Review: In Krista Knight's CRUSH, a cockroach finds love


What did Erin think?

Like most New Yorkers, I've had my share of run-ins with cockroaches. The most unnerving being when I entered the bathroom one night to find a gigantic cockroach sitting on top of the sink faucet. I got out of there fast. In my mind, I can still see his antennae quivering.


But in Krista Knight's CRUSH, a beatnik cockroach poet with a crush becomes an entertaining, empathetic tragic hero. In a series of six short videos, the roach unpacks his love for the messy, crumb-dropping human who lives in the house he infests. A film by No Puppet Co., CRUSH won the 45th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival. But when its premiere was canceled due to COVID-19, Knight and co-creator Barry Brinegar decided to stage the show virtually using live animation, with actor Ben Beckley voicing the cockroach. The result is a strange but delightful synthesis of beat poetry, live capture animation, and special effects. And it's somehow...adorable?


At first, the cockroach is thrilled that his new tenant is messy and always dropping sizeable crumbs. Soon, his delight turns to admiration, then adulation. Before long, our hero is hopelessly ensnared--chasing the love of a human who doesn't even know he exists, and who comes close to accidentally stepping on him. "Do I only want you because you scare me?" the roach wonders, shortly before he vows: "I'll make you happy."


Unfortunately for our hero, most humans don't take well to roaches, especially roaches living in their home in plain sight. When our hero seizes the stage of the living room floor to perform a naked birthday dance for his crush...well let's just say things don't go as planned.


Beckley's voice and intonations are perfect: balancing childlike over-eagerness with wry humor and sarcasm. The script never tries too hard to be serious, but neither is it superficial fluff. This roach is rhythmic and quick-witted, and his poetry sings in its own way. 


Zany and amusing, CRUSH presents an inventive, original new format for virtual theatre. Krista Knight and her team deserve praise for bringing something fresh into a venue that, these days, mostly consists of zoom readings and living room concerts. It's a fresh take on theatre in the age of COVID-19, just as it's a fresh take on first love. And even if those quivering antennae made me feel a little uneasy, I enjoyed seeing the world from a roach eye perspective, if only for a little while.








How can I get tickets?

CRUSH is currently available to watch for free on YouTube.


How long is it?

A series of six short videos, it comes to about 20 minutes total.


What else do I need to know?

If you're interested, you can watch the making of video here.


Is it appropriate for all ages?

I only counted one swear word, and there's nothing else in it that might be considered inappropriate.


Your obedient servant,

EJK

Sep 4, 2020

Recap of The Neo-Political Cowgirls Advocacy Night: Charlottesville lawsuit, RFK Human Rights, and the words of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel

Screen Shot 2020-07-08 at 12.35.13 PM

Last night, I returned from a walk around the neighborhood to find red spray paint on the Black Lives Matter sign in my family's yard. I wasn't so much disturbed as surprised. Militant racism in our friendly little college town?

Earlier that day, I'd tuned into The Neo-Political Cowgirls Advocacy night: a series of conversations with social justice change makers. As part of the event, Integrity First For America Executive Director Amy Spitalnick and attorney Roberta Kaplan discussed bringing a lawsuit against the Charlottesville rioters. Before, I thought the riot was just a misguided protest against the removal of a Civil War statue. But as Spitalnick and Kaplan explained, it was nothing of the kind.

The rioters, most of whom were not Charlottesville natives, planned the event for months—and planned to get violent. They discussed running into people with their cars and pretending it was self-defense. They targeted Blacks and Jews.

When Kaplan approached those injured by the rioters, their courage impressed her. She told them the process would be long and drawn out, that they wouldn't get much money from it, and that they might receive personal threats if they were involved. Nevertheless, they agreed to act as plaintiffs. Three years later, despite reluctance to comply and threats from the defendants, Kaplan is still fighting.

In her own words: “It’s still going to be a struggle, but we will take back our streets, our democracy, and our constitution, and that’s what gives me hope every morning when I wake up.”

For Amy Spitalnick, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, this is about sending a powerful message that we will not tolerate racial violence in America. Her ancestors, she explained, didn't have this system, but we do, and we'll use it for as long as we can.

That tied into the work of Kerry Kennedy, another social justice activist, who spoke next. President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Kennedy takes on international lawsuits she hopes will make change for a country.

Kennedy also amplifies the voices of other social change leaders: she recorded the words of several change makers and published them, and that became a series of monologues, which the Neo-Political Cowgirls performed at the end of the night. In the monologues, we heard from a mother whose daughters were kidnapped and murdered while the police refused to help, an LGBTQ student who faced bullying while the principal turned a blind eye, a woman questioning the death penalty, and finally, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. In his words:

“What I want, what I’ve hoped for all my life, is that my past should not become your children’s future.”

A theatre dance company working to amplify women's voices, the Neo-Political Cowgirls, along with their guests and partners, are working to make his hope a reality. Their Advocacy night sent a clear message about the kind of work they do and why it needs doing.

Aug 15, 2020

Review: 'Andromeda’s Sisters' speaks up for the underrepresented and unappreciated

screenshot from Mia Funk's In My Dreams
Mia Funk's In My Dreams

What did Erin think?

Women dance like primal, animalistic spirits. A female dog reminisces about life before COVID-19. A woman mourns her lover, knowing she will not be invited to the funeral. A wife seeks pleasure elsewhere when her husband turns a cold shoulder to her. A woman accused of witchcraft in 17th century dishes on what she'd do if she really was a witch.

By turns hilarious, clever, poetic, and thought-provoking, this series of monologues and performance pieces gives a voice to the underrepresented, the unappreciated, and the oppressed. Focusing on women's experiences, Andromeda's Sisters: An Arts and Advocacy Forum is the annual gala event of the Neo-Political Cowgirls, an organization created to amplify women's voices in theatre.

With one performance via Zoom on August 14 and another on September 3, the first part of this two-evening forum presents monologues, dance pieces, video, and poetry written by, about, and for women. Brave, bold, and empowering, it gives an intriguing glimpse into the kind of work supported and created by the Neo-Political Cowgirls.

A singular piece is Mia Funk's In My Dreams, a short film acted with poetic movement and diction by Funk herself. Exploring a woman's vision of the ideal romance, it incorporates black and white footage of Funk moving gracefully and slowly, along with images and superimposed narration. In gentle yet longing tones, the speaker yearns for a deep romance, not a cheap fantasy.

Another relationship-focused piece is Joy Behar's "Where Are You At?" performed with both hilarity and gravity by Catherine Curtin. 9-months pregnant, a popular actress discovers her husband has been cheating on her. She's outraged, but instead of starting a scandal that could backfire, she'll just channel the anger into her next audition. As her pregnancy continues, as she gives birth, as she cares for their newborn, her husband is repeatedly absent, leading her to ask "where are you at?" Cleverly written and shrewdly performed, this woman's attempt to reclaim her rights—or at least explain her reaction—is laugh-out-loud funny, without robbing the situation of its gravity.

In "Goody Garlick," written by Lucy Boyle and performed by Tony Award-winner Blythe Danner, a woman accused of witchcraft in 1658 chats with her neighbor about why the accusation outrages her. It's not so much the assumption that she's a witch as it is the idea that she'd waste such incredible, soul-destroying powers on getting back at her neighbors. Danner embodies this clever, passionate woman with sensitivity and range, brilliantly poised as she delivers a rant about everything from close-minded villagers to the endless drudgery of housework and the perils of childbearing.

The final performance, a reading of June Jordan's "Poem About My Rights" by Portia, embodies a common theme tying all these works together. The speaker does not consent to othering, to oppression, to rape, whether it's sexual, personal, or political. "I am not wrong," she declares. "Wrong is not my name. My name is my own."






















What else do I need to know?

You can catch part two of the forum on September 3rd at 5 pm EST. Buy tickets here

And while you're at it, learn more about the Neo-Political Cowgirls.


Your obedient servant,

EJK

The irrepressible Micki Grant: award-winning composer, actor, and trailblazer

Richarda Abrams (l) interviews Micki Grant (r) over Zoom. Micki Grant is always first in line: the first Black to write commercial jingles, ...