'Ain't No Mo'': Theater Review
Jordan E. Cooper's surrealistic, episodic satire imagines black Americans being forced to move to Africa or endure "extreme racial transmogrification."
There's no livelier preshow announcement in town than the one heard at the Public Theater before every performance of Ain't No Mo.' It's delivered by Peaches, a brightly dressed and bewigged drag queen who advises us that it's time "to get this bitch started." By the time she's finished her vigorous harangue about shutting off our phones, she's managed to get the entire audience to shout "Yes, bitch!" It's immediately clear we're not in for a staid evening.
That feeling is only reinforced by the opening segment of the new play by Jordan E. Cooper, who also plays Peaches. The context is a raucous black church service where a fiery pastor presides over a funeral being held on Nov. 4, 2008. The date proves particularly meaningful, since the deceased is "Brother Righttocomplain," who promptly expired after the election of Barack Obama because, well, you can infer the reason from his name. "As of now, the leader of this country is black. Light-skinned, to be exact," the pastor reminds us, before lapsing into more inflammatory language. Let's just say the word he repeats incessantly is not one that can be quoted here.
Cooper, a young playwright who recently received his BFA from The New School for Performing Arts, cites George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum as a primary influence for this world-premiere piece. Like that landmark work, which debuted in 1986 at the same theater, Ain't No Mo' deals with the black experience in a series of audaciously imaginative, loosely connected skits. While this show doesn't quite hit its targets with the same brilliance as its predecessor, it certainly marks the playwright as a vital emerging talent.
As the play proceeds to illustrate, Brother Righttocomplain shouldn't have expired so quickly. He would have had plenty more to complain about, since the Obama administration has been followed by one that is shipping off the country's entire black population to Africa. Anyone who chooses not to leave will be subject to "extreme racial transmogrification." Peaches periodically pops up during the proceedings as an airline agent (cleverly echoing the flight attendant aboard a slave ship in Wolfe's play) handling the mass exodus, which is being transported in one, apparently very large, airplane. The captain is Barack Obama. "Yes, bitch, we found him!" Peaches exults. The "Reparations Flight" is hosted by "African-American Airlines," whose motto is, "If you broke and black, we got yo' back."
The individual segments vary in tone and style, but all have fantastical, symbolic elements. Some are more serious, such as "Circle of Life," in which a woman has an intense conversation with her husband who is eventually revealed to be dead. He removes his shirt to reveal the bloodstains caused by the bullets fired by police after he made the mistake of getting out of his car. "Untitled Prison Play" is set in a women's prison where several inmates are being released. One of them loudly complains about "stuff" missing from her returned possessions, but the things she's talking about are not material.
The more outrageous scenes include "Real Baby Mamas of the South-Side," a reality television show parody in which one participant is welcomed as the "first transracial castmember" and another celebrates receiving her first child support payment. But as is so often the case with reality TV, much artificiality is involved. In "Green," a wealthy family is forced to cope with the unexpected arrival of a loudly aggressive woman who has broken free from being confined in the basement. The stranger announces herself as "Black," but her version is far different from that of the upscale people surrounding her.
Ain't No Mo' throws lots of ideas into its rambunctious mix, and not all of them land. For all the wild imagination on display, there's also a lack of discipline that sometimes prevents the evening from being as impactful as it might have been. Another problem is that the dense, colloquialism-packed verbiage is delivered at such a fast pace that much of it is lost. The scene transitions are not always clear as well, leading to unnecessary confusion. In this case, a little less might have been mo.'
But there's no denying that this new playwright has lots of important things to say and a fresh, original way of saying them. Stevie Walker-Webb's energetic staging adds to the excitement, as do the absolutely terrific performances of the ensemble (Marchant Davis, Fedna Jacquet, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Simone Recasner) who handle their multiple roles with stupendous verve and inventiveness. Kudos as well to Cookie Jordan's hair, wig and makeup design. And Cooper proves himself as impressive a performer as a writer, garnering huge laughs via the exuberantly flamboyant Peaches. Watching him strut his stuff, the only fitting response is, "Yes, bitch!"
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Jordan E. Cooper, Fedna Jacquet, Marchant Davis, Simone Recasner, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry
Playwright: Jordan E. Cooper
Director: Stevie Walker-Webb
Set designer: Kimie Nishikawa
Costume designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting designer: Adam Honore
Sound designer: Emily Auciello
Presented by The Public Theater