With this month’s opening of Ain’t No Mo’ at the Belasco Theatre, 27-year-old Obie-winning creator and performer Jordan E. Cooper made history in his debut as the youngest playwright on Broadway. And that’s not the only piece of history that comes with this over-the-top absurdist farce on the Black experience in America. The audaciously provocative and riotously acerbic Cooper references an array of past and present socio-political events, top headline news, and pop-culture phenomena in his subversive laugh-out-loud exploration of the devastating racial violence, oppression, bigotry, and tension that have permeated our country, through the lens of what might happen if the US government offered all Black Americans a free one-way flight to Africa, with the stipulation that they don’t look back, under the threat of being turned into a privileged white male (a biting update to the Old Testament pillar of salt in the story of the wicked and sinful Sodom and Gomorrah).
The no-return ticket is on the fictitious African American Airlines’ flight 1619, a number specifically chosen by Cooper for its own horrific history. It’s the year that has traditionally marked the origins of slavery in our country, when in late August, Virginia colonist John Rolfe documented in his journal entry the arrival of the English privateer the White Lion, which dropped anchor in the James River at Point Comfort, with “20 and odd” Africans on board. Now Peaches, the irrepressibly flamboyant flight agent, played by Cooper in dazzling colorful drag, checks the (unseen) passengers in at the gate for the mass exodus back to the ancestral continent, warning them not to be late, telling each one to enjoy the flight (to the point of her own exhaustion, with so many people departing), and making insightful observations on the deep roots of the metaphorical baggage they’re leaving behind – a cultural history that belongs to no one else.
Presented in the format of a series of sketch-comedy segments (in the manner of such TV hits as SNL and In Living Color, and George C. Wolfe’s satirical 1986 play The Colored Museum), Peaches’ hilarious solo skits at the airport, interspersed throughout the show, tie together the central conceit of who’s choosing to leave and why. The in-your-face scenes parody a variety of all-too-familiar Black stereotypes, under the no-holds-barred direction of Stevie Walker-Webb, also making his Broadway debut and providing the perfect match for Cooper’s cutting-edge combination of boisterous brazen humor with serious moments of pathos, delivered by a terrific cast – Fedna Jacquet, Marchánt Davis, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry, and Shannon Matesky – all (but Cooper) playing multiple roles.
The show opens at the November 2008 church funeral of “Brother Righttocomplain” with an impassioned preacher, ecstatic about Obama’s election, delivering a sermon to mourners and an organist, all dressed in white, on what his presidency means to Black America, through a long list of the eponymous what “Ain’t no mo’” (discrimination . . . stop . . . frisk . . . Rodney King . . .). Directly addressing the audience with full-out zeal and repeated use of the n-word and the f-bomb, he entreats everyone to participate by responding loudly, rising up, and looking at one another, in a sidesplitting send-up of a Black Gospel service. It’s all upbeat and joyous until a voiceover of the names of subsequent victims of racial violence and murder indicate that nothing has changed, news comes of the government offer of a free ticket to Africa, and everyone reacts accordingly to the gut-punch of realization.
Other sketches are set in a community center abortion clinic, where we see two among thousands of Black women who have come to prevent any more children from being born into the virulent racism in America, until they have the option of leaving; a reunion taping of the cast of The Real Baby Mamas of the South Side, with overblown speech patterns and a “transracial” character – a take-off on the real-life Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who self-identified and passed as Black – that show there’s nothing real about reality TV and who is really eligible for the flight to Africa; the interior of an upscale home where the personified Blackness of a wealthy family, with an assimilated air, uppity attitude, and no desire to depart the US, has been locked and chained in the basement for years; and a prison where two inmates are being released with their few personal belongings in time for the final take-off, which includes a passage inspired by “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” from For Colored Girls and concludes with a deeply affecting perception of the long-awaited freedom it represents. All are performed with outrageously hysterical humor and sobering touches of heart by the consistently outstanding actors, who fully embrace their exaggerated characters and masterfully switch from one to the next.
A top-notch artistic design, with character-defining sets (by Scott Pask), costumes (Emilio Sosa), and wigs and hair (Mia M. Neal), and dramatic lighting (Adam Honoré) and sound (Jonathan Deans and Taylor Williams), contribute to the laughs and significance of the sketches, in a wildly spirited Broadway premiere that mocks and shatters ongoing perceptions and calls for a time when there truly Ain’t No Mo’.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.