By: Samuel L. Leiter
December 5, 2022″. As Kermit the Frog often reminded us, it’s not easy being a color different from that of the dominant culture. Some Black American playwrights, especially since the 1960s, have satirized their frustrations with such unease by creating seemingly outlandish situations in plays located somewhere on the absurdist spectrum. In 1965, for instance, in the days of what was then called the Black theatre movement, Douglas Turner Ward’s one-act, “Day of Absence” considered the reactions of a Southern town’s whites (played by Blacks in whiteface) to the sudden disappearance of all the local African Americans.
Such metaphorical takes remain among the most significant contributions of a growing cadre of Black playwrights, a group including Suzan-Lori Parks, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Robert O’Hara, Jeremy O. Harris, and too many others to name. Joining them is the stingingly talented Jordan E. Cooper, whose Ain’t No Mo’ was first seen locally at the Public Theatre in April 2019, and has now moved to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Amen to that! (This review is an updated adaptation of the one I wrote of the Public’s production.)
Take note: whatever values this play may have couldn’t be better expressed than by the remarkably versatile ensemble performing it, the same as Off Broadway except for one. When I saw the show at the Public, the playwright, Mr. Cooper, who plays a drag queen-like flight attendant named Peaches, was replaced by his excellent understudy, Hermon Whaley, Jr. It was exciting to now see the unusually gifted Mr. Cooper himself in the difficult role, in which he is simply impeccable at remaining sincere while carrying off its deliberately stereotypical tropes.
Ain’t No Mo’, which Cooper has said was influenced by an earlier racially provocative satire, George C. Wolfe’s 1986 The Colored Museum (which also features a flight attendant), gets its title from all the things Barack Obama’s 2008 election was supposed to make disappear. The audience—sometimes responding like the hearty call-and-response congregants in a Black church—hear what they’re told “ain’t no mo’’ in a rousing litany delivered by the fiery Pastor Freeman (an indelible Marchánt Davis), who eulogizes over the gold casket of the late “Brother Righttocomplain. “Ain’t no mo’ waiting for FEMA,” he intones, “while the Louisiana sun is stabbing at yo back on the interstate and your grandmama is backstroking in a river of expired bodies.”
What ensues, replete with all the fixings of Black dialect, profanity, and countless iterations of “bitch” and the “n-word” is a wild, often broadly farcical, yet always deeply serious work. Its comically nightmarish scenes reveal the vanished promise of “ain’t no mo” and the fury, frustration, and fear that being Black in America fuels in so many dreams.
At its heart are lengthy monologues spoken by Peaches, the flamboyant, blond-wigged, slacks and spike heels-wearing flight attendant, anxiously overseeing the boarding process for Flight 1619 (named for the year the first slave ship arrived in Virginia), with Capt. Obama in the cockpit. It’s the last African American Airlines flight to Africa of America’s Blacks, whose passage to their ancestral countries, with a first stop in Dakar, Senegal, is being paid for as reparations by the government. (Latinos are on the wait list in case a seat becomes vacant.) Nearby is “Miss Bag,” a handbag serving as the repository for “our entire story as a people in this country as we make this glorious transition.”
A cartoonish approach pervades nearly everything, although a darker feeling covers two scenes, one at a clinic, where millions of Black women, wishing not to bring their children into this dangerous society, are lined up to have abortions. Meanwhile, the bullet-riddled ghost of a prospective father (Marchánt) tries to dissuade the woman carrying his child from having the procedure. There’s also a pathos-laden prison episode toward the end where female convicts are being released for the flight.
But sardonic hilarity keeps returning, like the scene showing a TV reality show called “Real Baby Mamas of the South-Side,” whose extravagantly dishy participants include Rachel (Shannon Matesky, in the role Simone Recasner played at the Public), a white woman “transitioning” to blackness under the name “Rachonda.” The situation leads to Jerry Springer-like mayhem with her disapproving fellow guests (Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Fedna Jacquet, and Crystal Lucas-Perry), as the producer’s offstage voice reveals his pleasure at the rowdy results.
And then there’s the scene set around the dinner table of a distinguished family who behave like whites only to be reminded of their repressed racial past by the shocking appearance of someone called Black (the astonishing Ms. Lucas-Perry). This indescribably shabby presence bursts forth to freedom from her secretly shackled basement existence; her fate is anything but free.
Ain’t No Mo’ is packed with vibrantly painted ideas and images torn from the headlines and particularly familiar to the Black community, members of which are nearly as actively responsive on Broadway as they were Off. It again gets a smashing production at the hands of director Stevie Walker-Webb, with glowing assistance from an entirely new team of designers, Scott Pask doing the imposing sets (including a huge airplane seen through the boarding gate’s windows), Emilio Sosa the often over-the-top costumes, Adam Honoré the expressive lighting, Jonathan Deans and Taylor Williams the abundant sound design, Mia M. Neal the extensive hair and wig designs, and Rocío Mendez, who covers both the fight and intimacy direction.
Mr. Walker-Webb has inspired his cast to so sharply differentiate their multiple characters as to make the actors sometimes unrecognizable from one role to another. There have been numerous brilliant acting performances this season, several in this show alone. If I were threatened with annihilation unless I chose just one from Ain’t No Mo’ for a Tony nomination, I guess I’d point to Miss Lucas-Perry, who is asked to go way beyond the call of duty both physically and emotionally in a part arcing the spectrum from farce to sorrow.
Ain’t No Mo’ offers a refreshing, powerful new voicein Jordan Cooper, who, at 27, is reported to be—see, for example, his Playbill bio—the youngest American playwright in Broadway history, an unnecessary exaggeration disproved by a number of commentators here. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing much mo’ not only of this awesome artist, but of the extraordinary company bringing his vision to satirically penetrating life.
Ain’t No Mo’ *****
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Photography: Joan Marcus