“Welcome to African-American Airlines, where if you broke & black, we got yo back” – those are the first two messages painted on the wall as we walk up the staircase in the Public Theater to “Ain’t No Mo’.” The play by Jordan E. Cooper, making his Off-Broadway debut as both a playwright and an actor, takes its audience on a trip through the present-day African-American experience. The trip is meant to be more than just a metaphor. Black people are leaving the United States en masse on flights to Africa. It appears to be voluntary, but maybe not really. “If you stay here, you only got two choices for guaranteed housing, and that’s a cell or a coffin,” explains Peaches, portrayed by the playwright. Peaches, a drag queen dressed all in pink, functions as the airline’s flight attendant and ticket agent, and the playwright’s mouthpiece.
If the premise is mass African-American exodus, and some of the scenes take place at an airport, “Ain’t No’ Mo’” does not offer a direct flight. We make stops at a funeral parlor, an abortion clinic, a TV studio, a mansion, and a prison, and veer from comic and chaotic to pointed and unsettling.
I saw a production of “Ain’t No Mo’” a couple of years ago when it was part of the annual Fire This Time Play Festival , which showcases the work of early-career playwrights of African and African-American descent. It was set at an African American funeral parlor on November 4th, 2008 — the day Barack Obama was elected president. Egged on by a fiery, foul-mouthed black preacher (Cooper himself) the mourners were weeping at the death of “Right To Complain.” The none-too-subtle point was that the election of a black presidentdid not solve all of black people’s problems.
It was a short play, performed with exaggerated comic verve – nearly indistinguishable from sketch comedy.
That version of the play is now the first scene (Preacher Freeman now portrayed by Marchant Davis, just as broadly), in the greatly expanded production at the Public. There are now eight scenes – and each one feels like a skit. Most involve some kind of surreal twist, none are realistic, but they take aim at current events. When the issues under surveillance involve life and death, the play hits close to a bullseye. Other times, it’s just taking potshots.
A bullseye: In the abortion clinic, which has a couple of surprises I won’t spoil, a woman (Ebony Marshall-Oliver) starts chatting about her three children, about how two are in jail, and the third, “my youngest was sweet but he’s laying over there in Grover’s Cemetery on Rosedale, you know the one across from the liquor store? He been there for about a year now, that’s a beautiful cemetery, ain’t it? They about all filled up though, with everybody dying nowadays like they is. They only got one spot left, right next to him and my selfish ass is out here trying to save it for my damn self…” That’s why she’s having an abortion.
A potshot: One scene spoofs reality shows, with an episode of something called “The Real Baby Mamas of the South Side.” The cast includes a woman (portrayed by Simone Recasner), who says she is “transracial” – a white woman transitioning to black. “I’m still having to take my daily doses of Hennessy, The Color Purple, with an unfavorable amount of cocoa butter and hot sauce…” She calls herself Rachonda, but her resentful cast mates insist on calling her by her original name, Rachel. (Two notes here: 1. Rachel Dolezal, you may recall, was an NAACP official whose white parents said in 2015 she was only pretending to be black. 2. The first season of the TV series “Atlanta” included a similar spoof, equating transgender with transracial.)
Cooper seems little interested in careful plotting or working out the rules of the world he’s created. Is the government pushing black people out, or are they just sick of being victims? If they stay put, will they turn white, as at least one scene suggests? The playwright is more concerned with commenting on the world in which he lives, employing memorable metaphors and a vibrant street diction.
Some theatergoers may appreciate knowing in advance that there is copious use of the n-word. A while back, I wrote an article about the use of the n-word on stage, and Cooper was one of the theater artists I interviewed. He said that’s just how black Americans of his generation talk (He’s now 24.) He also said: “It’s important to reclaim the word….There is such power in taking back something that was negative.”
There are sometimes dizzying shifts between the outlandish and the grim in “Ain’t No’ Mo’,” but if they may cause some audience members whiplash, both the design team and the six-member cast handle them with impressive dexterity. Five of the six performers each portray five characters apiece; it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, which is a great testament to their acting (and the wig, makeup and costume designers.) Cooper gets only one role in his play, Peaches, and a final scene to himself at Gate 1619 (think about it) at the unnamed airport, in which he bowls us over. It wouldn’t be right to go into too much detail, but I will point out that the production carefully sets it up before the show starts, asking theatergoers, after they’ve passed all those signs on the way up the staircase, to fill out a card listing a great contribution that African-Americans have made to this country, and stick it into an old-fashioned multi-colored cloth traveling bag (what used to be called a carpet bag.) In the final scene, this is Miss Bag, and she doesn’t want to leave. Peaches is indignant.
“You just gonna let them have Billie’s flower? If they get that, then they get Ella’s scat, They get Pac’s rap, They get Oprah’s fat…. and I’ll be damned if I leave and they get to keep Whitney off crack!” That’s just the beginning of a long free-associating, exhaustive and exhausting monologue, that’s maybe not completely coherent and maybe too much to take, and maybe inspired, and certainly the mark of a theater artist we’ll be hearing from again.
Ain’t No’ Mo’
Written by Jordan E. Cooper
Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb
Scenic design by Kimie Nishikawa, costume design by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting design by
Adam Honoré, sound design by Emily Auciello, hair, wig, and make-up design Cookie Jordan
fight director Thomas Schall
Cast: Jordan E. Cooper,Marchánt Davis, Fedna Jacquet, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Simone Recasner, and Hermon Whaley Jr.
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
Ain’t No’ Mo’ is scheduled to run through April 28, 2019.
Extended through May 5th.