|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!”