Q&A with Freedom Theatre Guest Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj

Maharaj’s production of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope opens at Freedom Theatre on Thursday, July 21.

The ensemble of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope at Freedom Theatre. (Photo by www.ethimofoto.net)

Perhaps like me, you’ve never seen Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, but you know the title.  Vinnette Carroll’s African-American musical revue was a significant hit — over 1,000 performances on Broadway in the early 1970s — but it hasn’t often been revived.  I did own the cast album, though (now a quite rare collectible LP!), which captures the shows distinctive musical mix of gospel, jazz, soul, and more, as well as it’s free-wheeling charm.  We often credit Stephen Sondheim with reinventing musical theater in that time period, but Carroll’s show, focused on social and political themes, had a hand in it, also — not least because with it, Carroll herself became the first African-American woman to direct on Broadway.  Don’t Bother Me has a female composer and lyricist, too — Micki Grant, who also appeared in the show.

Now, director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj is bringing Don’t Bother Me to Philadelphia’s Freedom Theatre.  This is not simply a revival — Maharaj sees the show as a way to recognize and commemorate issues very much in our present, in particular the demolition of William Penn High School.  Not long ago, WPHS stood across the street from Freedom Theatre; now it’s a construction site, soon to make way for a racetrack for Temple University.

I recently spoke to Maharaj by phone, and asked him about the show:

How long have you wanted to do Don’t Bother Me?

For as long as I can remember! (He laughs.) But I had a hard time convincing people. They worried it was dated.  But the show is so important, and it had such an impact on the African-American community, and more widely. So I was looking for a way to get into the material. A lot of it is still very relevant — issues of black empowerment and community awareness.  And I thought it could also be tweaked for today…

And now you’re doing it at Freedom Theatre.

Yes!  When I came here, I knew it was a place where people use art for activism. The board and staff jumped on it. It really follows from the Trayvon Martin piece we did (Note: Maharaj is referring to Freedom’s production of The Ballad of Trayvon Martin — you’ll find my review here.)

Recent events must also feel very relevant …

Certainly.  The recent shootings, of course. There are so many pressing issues that people of color face every day. We can’t answer all of them — but I thought particularly about the high school, and its impact.

Yes — please say more about that.

William Penn High School was a part of our community. Here in North Philadelphia, people felt so strongly about it. They were devastated to see it torn down. It struck such a chord.

So you are incorporating this into the production…

We are. We’re using images of the demolition in the set.  And we have people in the company who were part of the actual protests, who took part in the meetings and were kicked out. We’ve also included some man-in-the-street interviews on the topic. For audiences, this experience will be immersive.

Say a little more about the cast.

It’s a wonderful group of Philadelphia artists of different ages, hues, orientations.  Many are students from Freedom’s training program.

What do you want audience to take away from the show?

Maybe most of all, that what we need in the world right now is peace and love. These themes resonate deeply in Don’t Bother Me. Also, to see that it’s multigenerational, and has a beautiful score that we don’t hear today, much like Jamaica, which we just did.

Of course, we have the convention coming here, too.  I hope people will look over to the other side of the city, to see what’s going on here.

And during intermission, we’ll say to our audiences, “go outside, check your cellphones, relax… and take a look across the street. That’s the demolition site of the high school. That’s what we’re talking about.”

Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope runs through July 30. For more information visit the Freedom Theatre website.