Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope at City Center Encores! Off Center
by Mo Brady
In Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, the first person onstage is Shonica Gooden. With a frantic cross towards the downstage right corner, she stops suddenly at the edge of the stage to dance. Her expressive face shows levels of anguish, and yet she does not speak a word.
The music in Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope seems both familiar and new, as if you’ve known it even if you’ve never heard it before. Led in the Encores! Off Center production by powerhouses Aisha de Haas and Wayne Pretlow, the song cycle is simultaneously simple and surprisingly poignant.
For the majority of the show, Gooden performs as part of a quintet of female dancers, portraying club goers, militants and street workers. It isn’t until 45 minutes into the performance that she opens her mouth. And for three minutes, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand with a simple, soulful performance of “So Little Time.”
A member of the show’s ensemble, Gooden is a true triple threat. In the seven years since she graduated from Point Park University, she’s performed in four Broadway musicals. She was of the first replacements in the New York company of Hamilton and originated the role of Rumpleteazer in the recent Broadway revival of Cats. With credits ranging from concert dance to feature films, she sings, dances and acts with unequivocal proficiency.
But part of what makes “So Little Time” so effective is that it is the first time we hear Gooden sing by herself. Stepping out of the ensemble, her soulful voice awakens the audience. For the entirety of the song, she stands onstage alone. Hearing this yet-unsung voice speak brings focus and clarity to words she sings and the emotions she portrays.
Similar devices have been used in musical theatre. From the stepping forward of Rebecca Faulkenberry in Groundhog Day to sing the revealing “Being Nancy” to Alysha Umphress’ rageful rendition of “Too Much Too Soon” in American Idiot, featuring an ensemblist in a show’s second half can be a remarkably effective device.
What makes “So Little Time” so haunting is that it’s the first time we’ve heard Gooden on her own. Her character has chosen to stay silent until this moment, when she can no longer hold her feelings in. When the words she sings are so important to her that she breaks her silence - and the device that the show has set up until that point - those words become that much more important to audiences as well.