Jordan E. Cooper’s kinetic new play, Ain’t No Mo’, now world premiering off-Broadway at the Public Theater, offers a searing critique of race in America, sparing few targets—white, black, or otherwise—from the crosshairs of its reproach. The play treats the contemporary white-dominated United States as fundamentally inhospitable to black people, and calls to account for that condition both the whites who grasp covetously to oppressive power as well as African Americans who too willingly sell their black soul for a sense of falsely defined and ill-begotten comfort within this too-white terrain. It is uncompromising, unambiguous, and unafraid. It is also a ton of fun, and in this light emerges the great power of this young playwright.
In Ain’t No Mo’, Cooper has composed a play as full of life and humor as it is of damning social satire. It is agitprop delivered in the type of absurdism that hews just close enough to reality to accentuate the absurdity at the core of that reality.
As soon as the lights dim, Ain’t No Mo’ announces itself as boldly breaking down any polite expectations of theater. The voice of venerable Public Artistic Director Oskar Eustis begins the preshow announcements before being quickly cut off by a voice oozing attitude: instructing audience members to turn off “your motherfucking phones,” but insisting that this space is one for the audience to cackle at and talk back to the performance. “Think of this as your black church,” we are told.
And then we are quickly ushered into a black church, where the opening scene stages a funeral in an exaggerated comic style that would be right at home on In Living Color. The preacher (Marchánt Davis) takes the microphone to sermonize in front of a casket we are told contains “Brother Right to Complain.” Black people have lost the right to complain, he insists, because Barack Obama has been elected president. As the preacher and the black church ladies mourn histrionically, the scene grows funnier and more joyous for everybody involved, reaching its apex with a jubilant gospel dance party. Quickly, though, the mood shifts as sounds of racial strife during the Obama years drown out the music, and the all-black cast processes slowly offstage with their hands up.
This scene encapsulates the play: celebration, joy, and humor are paired inextricably with sorrow and worry. This is a foundational principle of blues, and one which Cooper epitomizes throughout Ain’t No Mo’. The matters at the heart of the play’s critique are quite literally life and death, but that doesn’t mean that Cooper and his cast aren’t going to have some fun in the process of taking America’s racism to task.
The play’s episodic scenes are connected with its central conceit: African American Airlines flight 1619 (not an insignificant number in black American history) is the last plane preparing to depart for Africa, and all black people better be on it or any pretense of racial justice will soon be dropped in the US. The government-funded exodus has been underway for some time, but flight 1619 is the end of the road, so tensions are ramping up. As the play moves from scenes in church to an abortion clinic to a reality television set to a prison and elsewhere, a wide variety of black characters must respond to the call to vacate their home for a chance at a new life in Africa.
The play’s one recurring character is played by Cooper: Peaches, the fabulous and sassy drag queen acting as gate agent for the boarding of flight 1619. Cooper’s performance is stunning and rich: Peaches is essentially this play’s emcee, and although the sass never wanes, she nonetheless embodies much of the play’s tension between joy, struggle, and determined independence. Under the direction of Stevie Walker-Webb, the rest of the five-person, role-shifting cast impresses in their ability to fully embody such a variety of characters. Crystal Lucas-Perry as the ghost of suppressed blackness to a bourgeois African-American family, Simone Recasner as a white woman claiming rights to black culture while she transitions to blackness, and Ebony Marshall-Oliver as a fangirl starstruck by the widow of a man gunned down by police are a few standout moments, but the play teems with performances that are unique, exciting, and frequently moving in their depth.
In the play’s final moments, extending through its curtain call, Cooper strips away the layers of fun and joy that intermingle with sorrow throughout the play, electing to lay black pain bare before the audience. The move is as striking and resonant as it is fitting for this play. In part, Ain’t No Mo’ is a ruse, offering the guise of ebullience in the place of real grief, and challenging its audience to recognize the real complexity of black life. But there is no trick to Cooper’s message here, and the Public’s production amplifies this new voice boldly and vibrantly.