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Just one week after its opening, new Broadway play Ain’t No Mo’ announced it would soon be ending its run.
Written by and starring Jordan E. Cooper — the youngest Black American playwright in Broadway history — and produced by Lee Daniels, the play is set to close on Dec. 18, unless the production can rally audiences and boost ticket sales enough to reverse the decision. So far, the production has received support from Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who bought out a performance of the show this week, with Cooper telling The Hollywood Reporter there’s more still to come.
The provocative comedy, which asks the question “what if the U.S. government attempted to solve racism by offering Black Americans one-way plane tickets to Africa?” features an all-Black cast playing out the characters’ responses over a series of sketches. Cooper plays Peaches, a bossy flight attendant in drag attempting to organize the boarding process.
While well-reviewed, Ain’t No Mo’ has struggled at the box office during the five or so weeks of its run so far, highlighting the challenges of bringing new work to Broadway in the post-pandemic era. Particularly for shows doing so without well-known stars attached and amid the work that remains to welcome audiences of color to Broadway. It’s a challenging closing that comes on the heels of KPOP, an original work about Korean pop artists, which closed on Sunday after a similarly short run.
“This is so much bigger than Ain’t No Mo‘. We have to shift for the people that are coming after us. We can’t let this happen to this kind of work,” Cooper said. “It deserves to be in a commercial space, too.”
Cooper spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of bringing Black audiences to the theater, how marketing and ticket prices fit into that and the prospects for his show and other original works on Broadway.
In your initial Instagram post about the closing, you said this is an “eviction notice.” Are you saying the theater owners are kicking you out?
That was more of a metaphor. Basically the Shuberts were like “You’ve got to close on December 18.” Thankfully, they’ve been really nice. They’re not like some evil landlords. They were really nice as far as the movement goes trying to see “Can you guys make it? Can you do it?” So that’s why we’re really pushing right now. I always say, where I’m from, “If somebody can’t make rent, we throw a rent party.” We’re going to be throwing a rent party in this theater for the next eight shows to let this kind of theater survive on Broadway.
So it’s just a matter of boosting ticket sales this week?
It’s all about box office. Basically, are you meeting the show’s operating costs? Because they don’t have another show coming in until April. So it’s a matter of getting audiences to show up. The reviews have been great. Audiences have been loving it. The problem is that we just didn’t have time to get [to] the audience that this show belongs to. We don’t have a celebrity in the show. It’s not based on any recognizable IP. So when you’re a show of color, and you don’t have to have those things, it takes a little bit more time to build your audience and build some buzz.
I think we’ve seen that with KPOP. KPOP has millions of fans of that genre alone and people were seeing themselves on a Broadway stage who had never seen themselves on a Broadway stage before. Its closing is a travesty because it’s a red alert that we have to change the way we do marketing when it comes to these types of shows. We can’t do the same old Broadway traditional stuff. We’ve got to try something new. Because a lot of these audiences that will actually enjoy these works are outside of the traditional Broadway audience. They’re not the same people who want to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!, unless you’re me, because I fit in both those categories. But it’s a conversation that artists of color have been having for a very long time, and I think that right now we’re seeing the fruits of that.
What other challenges is the show facing?
I think what we’re seeing right now, even beyond people of color, is that theater is struggling on Broadway. I think after the pandemic, when people are paying premium prices for a show, they want to know that they’re getting something that they already know. They don’t care what it is if Samuel L. Jackson is in it or Denzel Washington’s in it or Jessica Chastain is in it or Nathan Lane is in it. Even if no celebrities are in it, they want recognizable IP. They want to know that the Backstreet Boys music is gonna be in it. They want to know that they’re gonna hear a Katy Perry song or a Britney Spears song or they want to see MJ or it’s based on a movie. Those are the things that are guaranteed buys right now. It’s an interesting time to actually take a chance on art. And I think that is really the conversation that needs to be had, on top of this idea that shows of color just don’t get a chance to find their audience when they don’t have those things to lean on.
How do you think Broadway’s ticket prices play into this?
We want everybody to engage. But we also have to go to the people who would rather spend $400 on some Jordans than spend $150 at a Broadway show. We worked hard [on Ain’t No Mo’] to make sure that the tickets were a certain price point, so that way people could afford to see it. I believe the average ticket was $21. But we did that on purpose because we wanted to make sure that people who normally felt like they couldn’t afford Broadway were able to come. The problem is we made those ticket prices that low for those people, but we were not marketing toward those people.
We did $20 tickets for the first preview, but we just did not reach the people who needed to be reached. You post those things on Playbill, you post those things on Theatermania, you post those things on the Ain’t No Mo’ Broadway page, but the people that we really need to get are not following those pages. They don’t always go see theater. They don’t always feel welcome in the theater. And that’s who I made the show for.
What kind of marketing would you like to see?
(Laughs.) I want planes. I want buses. I’ve never seen a subway poster for it. I’ve never seen a billboard. And not just in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn, around churches in Harlem. The same way the government knows where to put a liquor store, we need to know where to put a Black play. (Laughs.) The same way they know where to put a prison. We need to know where to put a Black play. That is the energy and that is the intentionality that needs to happen in order for these works to survive in this kind of environment.
You announced that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith bought out a performance of Ain’t No Mo’ this coming week. How did that happen?
They had heard about the show, that we were closing after a week of opening, and about how good it is. Thankfully Lena Waithe, our co-producer, is friends with Jada and they got on the phone. Jada was like “I want to help out because we were part of Fela! and we know how hard it is.” That’s the kind of activism that is so greatly appreciated. That’s when you put your money where your mouth is.
What’s your goal for the rest of the week?
All I can do is keep fighting, so right now I’m just pushing and encouraging people to come and support the show and get a ticket or sponsor a ticket. Thankfully, we have these really generous people like Will and Jada who are buying out houses. Then we have some more generous people who are coming and hosting talkbacks and hosting nights.
I think we really do have a chance and if there wasn’t a chance, I would say so.
On social media, you wrote, “We’re doing something new on Broadway, but is Broadway ready?” What’s your response to that?
I think it doesn’t have a choice. Just like the world didn’t have a choice when we wanted change. Just like America didn’t have a choice when the Civil Rights Act passed. The world is happening. What does it say in the Broadway Bible? Chapter one, verse one. “You can’t stop the beat.” That’s what prophet Tracy Turnblad says.
What are you hoping for the plays that come after you?
I hope that people come out and support and people see the worthiness in the work and really shift to what Broadway looks like. Just like everything else in the world has had to shift.
Ain’t No Mo’ is my love and loathe letter to America. I also think it’s my love and loathe letter to the American theater because there’s something about when you love something so much even when it’s not built for you. You love something so much, even when it’s not necessarily meant for you. I believe that you can love something so deeply that it has to make room for you. And I love Broadway so much, and I think that it’s going to make room for me. If not for Jordan Cooper, if not for Ain’t No Mo’, it’s going to make room for somebody else. And I’m grateful for that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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