"In His Own Voice: Negro Begins to Speak for Himself on Stage," proclaimed the headline of a 1962 New York Times think piece analyzing "an indisputable trend" in American theater. Though black life had been ripe material for dramas and musicals, the stories had usually been written by whites; but a promising pair of new productions--Ossie Davis's comedy Purlie Victorious and an off-Broadway musical called Fly Blackbird--found "the Negro serv[ing] notice that he is through being patronized by the theatre. . . . The trend is still modest, but it surely will grow in fervor and dimension."
That trend is now a mainstay, thanks to artists with sticking power. Fly Blackbird boasted a slew of such artists, including Robert Guillaume, Avon Long, and a spunky little newcomer from Chicago's south side named Micki Grant.
"I always knew what I wanted to do," says Grant, a graduate of Englewood High School. But when she was starting out there was little opportunity in Chicago for an aspiring actor, except for community theater groups like the Center Aisle Players, a south-side troupe that Grant joined in her teens. "We did standard light fare--Hay Fever, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Tender Trap. It was fun, but I knew I had to leave Chicago if I was serious. I couldn't have made a living. When I left they must have thought, "She's nuts--she's taking this thing seriously,"' she says with her soft, throaty burble of a laugh.
After Fly Blackbird Grant established a solid reputation in off-Broadway and regional theater with performances in such shows as Brecht on Brecht, in which she sang songs originally written for Lotte Lenya. The late 60s saw her in a brief Chicago comeback, spoofing the supermodel Twiggy in Bon Voyage Titanic, a revue at the old Happy Medium cabaret on Rush Street. But it was in the 70s that Grant hit her stride as a songwriter as well as a performer when she embarked on a series of collaborations with director Vinnette Carroll, who ran an off-off-Broadway company called Urban Arts Corps. "Vinnette was trying to put together a musical version of Irwin Shaw's [antiwar drama] Bury the Dead, and she was looking for someone to write songs. Glory Van Scott [a fellow cast member from Fly Blackbird] told her she'd listened to some of my material; so I pulled out my acoustic guitar and started playing." Bury the Dead was followed by an upbeat musical revue about urban black life--Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, which opened on Broadway in 1972. With Grant as the star as well as composer, the show was a hit with critics and audiences, running more than two years and spawning a national tour; it was followed in 1976 by another Carroll-Grant success--Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, a gospel retelling of the Passion of Jesus.
Today Grant's known principally for her writing; she penned several of the spunkiest numbers in Working, the Studs Terkel-inspired musical that premiered in 1977 at the Goodman Theatre and is frequently revived at community theaters around the country, and she continues to write new works for regional and children's theaters. But, she says, "Occasionally I come out of my cocoon" as an actor. "I don't want to get out of acting altogether. I pick and choose where I'm going to expend that kind of energy." When a playwright asked her to perform in a reading of a new script at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, she agreed; in the audience was the McCarter's artistic director, Emily Mann, who had scripted and directed the Broadway hit Having Our Say. Knowing that the show's producers, Camille Cosby and Judith Rutherford James, were looking for actors for the Chicago company, Mann recommended Grant, who was hired as standby for one of the play's two leads. When the show was extended in May, Grant stepped into the role full-time; she'll stay with the production when it embarks on a national tour this fall.
Based on the autobiography of Sadie and Bessie Delany, Having Our Say is a touching and funny evening of storytelling by two remarkable "colored maiden ladies" who share their experiences and observations gleaned from more than a century of living. Grant plays Sadie--still alive today at age 107--who in 1930 became the first African-American teacher of "domestic science" in New York City's high schools; costar Lizan Mitchell plays Bessie, a Harlem dentist who passed away last year at 104. The characters' tales of family life and social progress are fascinating; so is the intimate interplay between the siblings as they confirm or contradict each other's memories and echo or finish each other's phrases.
Though Grant hasn't met the woman she plays--"I've never had that privilege"--she draws on a wealth of firsthand observations for her character: "I grew up in a family of "grands'--grandparents, grandaunts, granduncles. I'm used to having older people around, being at my grandmother's knee listening to stories." Her mother and an aunt still live in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood with her sister.
As Sadie, Grant is molasses to the vinegary Bessie, radiating quiet strength with a beatific smile that beams goodwill but also an implied warning--I am a lady and I expect to be treated as such--that must have kept generations of schoolkids on their best behavior. Embodying the common wisdom that "still waters run deep," Grant's benignly dictatorial Sadie only seldom reveals her inner turbulence--when she wistfully recalls a suitor her daddy scared off, and later when she's overtaken by a flood of tears as she grieves for her dead mother. More often she seems determined to live the maxim she preaches: "Life is short, and it's up to you to make it sweet."
Ironically, Grant first saw Having Our Say last year on Broadway not as a prospective cast member but as a paying customer--part of a theatergoing group from Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, where she's a member of the congregation. "I thought it was a wonderful show. But I had no idea I'd ever be connected with it," she says. "Now here I am--it's brought me home. I guess it was just meant to be."
Having Our Say runs through August 4 at the Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted; for tickets and information, call 348-4000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photograph of Micki Grant by J.B. Spector; photograph of "Having Our Say" by Dan Rest.