AT A TIME WHEN race relations on campus and around the country appear to be growing more strained, some in the production staff of Vinette Carroll's Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope worried that the show might inflame racial tensions. The gamble, however, pays off successfully, and the all-Black cast with their rhythm and bluesy score cut across racial boundaries by presenting life's frustrations, pains, rewards and hopes in a tender and human way. The production's air of naive amateurism, though unintentional, ends up bringing the actors' feelings closer to the audience, creating an atmosphere of cooperative hope.
Although the spirit improves more important than the artistic quality of the performance, the show has major flaws which hinder its effectiveness. Essentially a revue of songs linked together more by theme than by a plot, it inherently lacks a smooth continuity between songs; the excruciatingly long scene changes and constant reshuffling of bodies on stage only punctuates the choppiness.
The vast differences between the first and second acts epitomize the disjunctive nature of the show. Attempting to find "safety in numbers," the first act concentrates on basic, mundane gripes which the large number of people on stage repeatedly complain about, eventually overwhelming the audience. Most of the songs, especially "Lookin' Over From Your Side" and "Time Brings About a Change," utilize a song structure better suited to T.V. shows like "Laugh-In" where the chorus of the song comes to a sudden, stop and one of the people on stage tells a trite little anecdote.
The first act valiantly tries to bring the audience together to laugh at and to overcome universally shared day-to-day annoyances, but jokes about roaches and inconsiderate landlords can amuse for only so long.
IN THE SECOND ACT, Cope sets its sights higher and addresses the more spiritual and long-range questions of finding one's place in the world, falling in love, and dealing with society's inherent injustices. On this higher, more soul-searching level, Cope finally takes off and evokes genuine emotion from the audience. Solo songs and introspective spotlights on selected characters leave the second act more vulnerable, yet in the end, the troupe commands infinitely more attention, respect, and most of all, tenderness than in the chaos of the first act.
In the show's most touching number, "Thank Heaven for You", Everett Gibson, a solid tenor whose voice fills the theater with a marvelous operatic resonance, and Cheryl Coston, a petite soprano with a versatility that can conquer both ballads and jazzy scat-singing, perform a coppella love song that showcases the two most distinctive vocalists in a singer's show. Gibson and Coston dominate throughout, invigorating their songs with a range of expression that many of the other more static soloists lack. Although the choreography is both graceful and jazzy, the frozen and unnecessary presense of several non-singing and non-dancing characters on stage in most numbers drags down most of the solos.
After second act solos, the characters explore the linkage area between heaven and earth--the church. Even though the entire cast fills the stage (as in the first act), the effective momentum of the personalities, which the solos articulated in the beginning of the second act, never lets up, and the tightness of the audience-cast bond grows stronger. Eventually, the church on stage engulfs the entire theater. Preacher Gregory Van Buren and Alison Taylor bop and shout with a spasmodic liveliness that transforms the theater into a hand-clapping, toe-tapping revival meeting.
The spirit of the church scene is downright infectious, giving the actors a chance to prove that their fervor can overcome shoddy direction and logistical staging difficulties. In the end, they create a vibrant production that engrosses and entertains.