Charlayne Woodard pays tribute to Micki Grant, the trailblazing dramatist and performer who passed away on August 22, 2021.
Micki Grant once said, “Art is the best and most human form of communication.”
In 2012, Micki Grant and I shared a car to a photography shoot [for The Dramatist!] in Brooklyn. Traffic was ridiculous, so it took us well over an hour to reach the studio. Oh, that ride to Brooklyn. Don’t let that demur smile and soft voice fool you. Micki Grant is a huge spirit. She regaled me with stories from her vast and varied career as an artist: She conjured up the zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s, how her shows came to be, what inspired this song and that. Her memories led to a melody and, lo and behold, Ms. Grant effortlessly and mellifluously sang one of her favorite ballads...on the road to Brooklyn.
Micki Grant was born in Chicago. She always knew she would be a creative but unlike many artists, her parents encouraged her to pursue music, writing, and acting. By six, she already had her first acting role, the Spirit of Spring. By eight, she was reading, writing, reciting poetry, taking piano, and double bass lessons. By nine, she began acting classes.
After graduating from Englewood High School, Ms. Grant attended the Chicago School of Music and University of Illinois. Already an accomplished musician on the bass, violin, and piano, Ms. Grant played in the orchestra of every school she attended.
After three years, Ms. Grant left U of I to pursue a dramatic career in New York. The timing could not have been better. It was in New York City that this writer, musician, singer, and actor merged, matured, and became one.
During the turbulent 60s, she appeared in a number of seminal New York productions, including Jean Genet’s The Blacks, Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of A Negro, and Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. At the same time, Ms. Grant began studying acting with Herbert Berghof and Lloyd Richards.
As a result of her stage work, Ms. Grant became the first African American contract player on a daytime TV soap opera, playing attorney Peggy Nolan on Another World. This was the first storyline written for an African American and it lasted seven years.
Ms. Grant became a role model to a Black community hungry for role models. She was an artist in a red hot, activist environment. And she allowed the times to feed her creativity.
In 1970, Ms. Grant joined the Urban Arts Corp as an artist-in-residence. Thus, began her long and successful collaboration with Vinnette Carroll. Ms. Carroll conceived and directed the hit musical Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope, while Ms. Grant was the composer and lyricist of its 21 songs and, in the process, created a leading role for herself. This groundbreaking musical features songs and dances inspired by gospel, jazz, rock, and calypso music, as well as blues and traditional ballads.
Ms. Grant’s successful collaboration with Ms. Carroll included The Ups and Downs of Theophilis Maitland; Step Lively, Boy; Croesus and the Witch; and Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. Other writing credits include Working, Eubie, It’s So Nice to Be Civilized, The Prodigal Sister, Phillis, and Jacques Brel Blues.
When Micki worked on Working, she closed the first act with a song about a woman that speaks volumes. Here is just a taste of the humanity in her work:
If I coulda been, what I could been,
I coulda been something.
If my destiny had been left to me
I woulda been something.
If they had just let me go,
where I was rarin’ to go,
when I was rarin’ to go ...back then.
God only knows ...what I coulda been.
And then, there are the awards, a lifetime of awards.
Just to name a few: The first woman composer to be awarded a Grammy for Best Score from an original cast album for Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope; the first person to write music, book, lyrics, and star in the same Broadway musical.
Years ago, when I asked Ms. Grant what compelled her, she responded in true Micki Grant simplicity, “I wanted to work on Broadway!”
Ms. Grant was awarded an OBIE Award for music and lyrics; a Drama Desk Award for lyrics and performance; an Outer Critics Circle Award for music, lyrics and performance; five Tony nominations; a Clio for her commercial jingles; an NAACP Image Award; a Helen Hayes Award for her performance as Sadie Delaney in Having Our Say; the National Black Theatre Festival’s Living Legend Award; and the AUDELCO’s Outstanding Pioneer Award.
In 2012, Micki Grant was awarded the Dramatists Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award, where she also served on council from 1999 until 2021.
That said, one of Ms. Grant’s proudest achievements was going back to college and earning her bachelor’s degree in English and theatre at CUNY’s Lehman College, graduating Summa Cum Laud.
Micki Grant was a trailblazer whose plays are a rite of passage for generations of Black artists. Yes, we all had to pass through Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope to get here. I met Ms. Grant at the very start of my career, earning my Equity card doing the bus and truck tour of Cope, performing the role she created for herself. Ever since then, Ms. Grant has been a major influence on my career path.
She has never stopped creating to this day. In her own words and music, Ms. Grant inspires us all:
I’ve gotta keep moving,
Keep moving, moving on.
I’ve moved a long way from
where I’ve been, but I’ve gotta
keep on moving
’til I move on in.
Rest in peace and power, dearest Micki. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.