“Ain’t No Mo’,” an over-the-top satire that aims to tickle, shock and draw blood, imagines an America in which all Black people are being flown to Africa. But it’s not a direct flight. There are stops at a Black church, an abortion clinic, a TV studio, a mansion, a prison, and finally, at African American Airlines, Gate 1619 (the date of the first Black slaves in the New World.) The gate agent is named Peaches; she is wearing a red pantsuit uniform and flowing pink tresses, and is portrayed by Jordan E. Cooper, who at 27 is making his Broadway debut as both actor and playwright.
“Yessss, we on Broadway, bitch!” Peaches says in the opening voice-over announcement, which includes more than the standard instructions about turning off our cell phones: “If you feel like laughing, you better cackle. If you wanna shout, bitch, shout….”
If the urge to cackle or shout is intermittent, the show and its creator are impressive. What may be most striking about “Ain’t No Mo’” upon seeing it at Broadway’s stately Belasco Theater is how little it has changed since I first caught it Off-Off Broadway five years ago at the Fire This Time Festival, an annual showcase for early career playwrights of African and African American descent.
This is not to say that the content is identical. The entire play in 2017 was just a single sketch, maybe 15 minutes long, in which Cooper portrayed a Black preacher with exaggerated comic verve, on the day Barack Obama was elected president, giving a funeral service to “Right To Complain” (“Ain’t no mo discrimination, aint no mo’ holleration, aint gone be NO more haterration….Ain’t no mo Stop. Ain’t no mo Frisk. Ain’t no mo getting followed around by the tall white lady in the K-Mart on Jones Street…”) — the unsubtle point being that the election of a Black president, contrary to popular (white) opinion, was not proof of the end of racism in America.
That sketch, virtually unaltered (and performed just as broadly by Marchánt Davis), became the first of eight vignettes in the expanded play, with a six-member cast, that was presented in 2019 Off-Broadway at the Public Theater. That’s the production, with the cast mostly intact and only a few updated references, now on Broadway, produced by Hollywood’s Lee Daniels, making his Broadway debut.
What has remained the same from Cooper’s initial youthful effort is the tone, a dizzying mix of cheeky, poignant and enraged. The comedy is raw and broad, much of the time almost indistinguishable from sketch comedy (“Saturday Night Live”? “In Living Color”?) except that it’s too foul-mouthed for TV, and too outrageous in its parodies of the Black community, although the humor feels from inside the family. Cooper’s episodic structure and choice of comic targets were inspired by George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play “The Colored Museum” (which also features a flight attendant, one who welcomes the audience aboard the “celebrity slaveship” asking them to obey the “Fasten Your Shackles” sign.) At the same time, the comedy is paired with tragedy, ominous and barbed, often within the same scene. The twisty juxtapositions tilt the vignettes towards the surreal. Cooper is more interested in using a series of metaphors to make pointed commentary on the current state of the country — and on Black pain — than in creating a consistent fictional world. Are the Black citizenry being forced to leave? Peaches tells a reluctant passenger: “if you stay here, you only got two choices for guaranteed housing and that’s either a cell or a coffin.”
What holds it all together is the extraordinary cast. Each of the performers except Cooper portray five characters. They are unrecognizable from scene to scene, each actor blending in for one scene, standing out in the next. Example: Crystal Lucas-Perry, who made a noteworthy Broadway debut as John Adams in the reimagined revival of 1776, here portrays 1. an absurdly caterwauling church lady in that first scene at the funeral, 2. a clueless newswoman at an abortion clinic, 3. one of the bawdy, bitching panelists on the TV reality show “Real Baby Mamas of the South Side,” and then two unforgettable characters: 4. Black, who has been locked in the basement for forty years in the mansion owned by a snooty wealthy family, members of the Black Bourgeoisie. “This is your chance to learn who you really are,” Black tells the family, but they refuse to hear it. and 5. Blue, a middle aged inmate who is being released along with all the other prisoners being shipped to Africa, as long as she signs for the bag with all the belongings she had on the night of her arrest. She refuses to sign. Stuff is missing. “I had some little piece of peace. It was small and chaotic but I had it. It was on me….I had a name. I had a smile, a real smile.”
Crystal Lucas-Perry, left to right: as a church lady; as Blue with Ebony-Marshall-Oliver as a prison guard; as a clueless newswoman with Shannon Matesky as an activist waiting for an (illegal) abortion.
Other stand-out moments include two by performers making their Broadway debuts: Fedna Jacquet as Trisha, waiting to get an abortion – the reason she is insisting on it is a poignant twist — and, at the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, Shannon Matesky (the one new cast member) as a woman who calls herself Rachonda and 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…” Her resentful fellow Baby Mamas of the South Side 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 reserves the last scene of “Ain’t No Mo’” for Peaches, who plans to leave on the last flight, but Miss Bag won’t budge – Miss Bag, who represents centuries of African American culture and history and living. Peaches doesn’t want to leave without it:
“Do you know what they get to keep if you stay here? You want them to have all the height and all the power? 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 wagon of 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 monologue that segues into a tour-de-force climax, all of which is maybe a tad too self-conscious if not self-indulgent and not completely coherent, but which three years ago I thought impressive enough to mark Jordan Cooper as a theater artist we’ll be hearing from again. And we have.
Update: Ain’t No Mo will play its final performance on Broadway on Sunday, December 18 at the Belasco Theatre, having played 22 preview and 21 regular performances. 2nd Update: Semi-reprieve: After a campaign to #SaveActnomo, the run has been extended to December 23
Ain’t No Mo’
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
Tickets: $48 to $288
Written by Jordan E. Cooper.
Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb
Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Adam Honoré. Sound design by Jonathan Deans and Taylor Williams. Wig design by Mia M. Neal. Fight and intimacy director Rocio Mendez.
Cast: Jordan E. Cooper, Fedna Jacquet, Marchánt Davis, Shannon Matesky, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, and Crystal Lucas-Perry.
Photographs by Joan Marcus