November 16th, 2020

I witnessed a magnificent Oral History Project interview starring the legendary Micki Grant, multi-award winning composer, lyricist, musician, multi-instrumentalist, playwright/librettist, director, singer, and actress. Ms. Grant was interviewed by her dear friend Richarda Abrams who has also won a slew of awards including the Audelco Solo Performance of the Year Award for her outstanding solo show First By Faith: The Life of Mary McLeod Bethune. Their mutual admiration sparked an engaging conversation which highlighted Micki’s significant achievements in a career that spans over seven decades. Words that describe my feelings watching them include joy, awe, pride, inspiration, love, and gratitude.

First, I shall start with gratitude.  In spite of the restrictions placed upon us all by the Covid-19 pandemic, the League of Professional Theatre Women arranged for this interview to be held on a Zoom webinar…the first ever! The Internet has become the New Normal and I must say that while we could not be present in the seats of the Bruno Walter Auditorium, we were instead sitting on our couches watching the animated conversation, enjoying the personality of each, and benefitting from the laughter enriched by shared experiences.

Joy is a word I will always associate with Micki Grant. I had the privilege of meeting Micki at a League event a decade ago. I felt a life force that I can only imagine comes from a life fulfilled. If there were challenges, they did not deter her from achieving her dreams.

As she said, ”If you can visualize it, imagine it in your mind and thoughts, dream it, nothing can stand in your way. You’ll find some way to see around them, they can be moved. Dream it, want it, make the dream real!”

Born in Chicago in 1929, Micki credits her parents for encouraging her interests in music (playing the guitar, bass, piano and the violin), poetry, singing, and acting.

“Acting,” she said, “was an aspiration, not a hobby.” A book of her poetry, “A String of Pearls,” was published by her church when she was 12. She loved to impersonate radio celebrities and  film stars. What is truly awesome is the recognition she has received during her career earning her honors in theatre, television, and the recording industry. Micki was the first woman to write the lyrics and libretto for a Broadway musical, Dont Bother Me, I Cant Cope! (1972). She was also the first woman to receive a Grammy for her Broadway score of an original cast show album for Dont Bother Me, I Cant Cope! In addition, she received a Drama Desk Award for music, lyrics and for her performance in the show,  an Obie Award for music and lyrics, an Outer Critics Circle Award for music and lyrics, an NAACP Award, a Mademoiselle Achievement Award,  as well as Tony nominations. Vinnette Carroll, her brilliant collaborator and the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway (Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope!), teamed up with Micki for many more collaborations including Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (1976) which also earned Tony nominations and long Broadway runs.

Fun Fact: Her song “Pink Shoelaces,” a teenage confection recorded by Dodie Stevens in 1959, was third on the hit charts, and No. 1 in Mexico.  She also wrote jingles and received a CLIO award for one of them.

I was inspired to learn that in 1966 Micki broke the color barrier as the first African American actress to be offered a contract role on the popular daytime drama Another World. She shared her story of how she got the role of Peggy Nolan: Her Off-Broadway theatre performances—being cast in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, Brecht on Brecht (she replaced Lotte Lenya after Lenya left; people said Micki was most like Lenya), and Howard da Silva’s Off-Broadway revival of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock—were praised by critics and won her an audition for the daytime drama role of Peggy Nolan that lasted from 1966-1973. During that time, she could play the contract role during the day and appear on stage in the evening.

Micki loves to work and has achieved much success in all areas of the professions and worked with great actors like Rosetta LeNoire, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, and Cicely Tyson. A favorite memory concerns the brilliant Langston Hughes, poet, composer, playwright, actor, who cast her in Tambourines to Glory, her Broadway debut. They shared a love for poetry. Ms. Grant drew inspiration from great poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou for being “black people of real accomplishment.” She also received a Helen Hayes Award for her role as Sadie Delaney in Having Our Say.

Micki Grant loves being able to “put actors to work.”

She met Richarda Abrams in the 1990s and describes her as a ‘flame, burning bright,” and notes that Richarda “energizes me.” There are many common threads connecting these two amazing women, starting with Chicago, their hometown. Their banter and familiarity raised the bar on this interview; love for each other and their chosen profession was felt by everyone who watched their history unfold.

I am proud of the accomplishments of the League of Professional Theatre Women and the Oral History events are a highlight of the year.  I am so grateful to the late Betty Corwin, founder and producer of the Oral History Project at Lincoln Center for her tireless efforts and commitment to archive the legacies of so many esteemed women of the theatre…in their own words! I am also very thankful to Ludovica Villar-Hauser for her determination and hard work in maintaining a continuum of excellence with this incredible project.

I encourage you to watch this remarkable and moving program that will soon be available at the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at the NYPL for the Performing Arts. 

Paula Ewin with contributions from Richarda Abrams and Mari Lyn Henry