My dearest Black sisters, brothers and ”those that don’t give a damn,” I regret to inform you that we have lost our right to complain. “Brother ‘Righttocomplain,’” that is. He rests eternally in a white coffin center stage at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. It is November 4, 2008, and America has elected a Black president, a fact that laid Brother ‘Righttocomplain’ all the way out. Don’t fear, though; there is hope. Pastor Freeman enters to deliver us a faith-fueled message, assuring that Brother’s martyrdom will usher in a new, post-racial day in America: “As we lay to rest our ‘Righttocomplain’ we shall WAKE UP our new life. In this new life there ain’t no mo strife, no more marches to be led and no more tears to be shed.” And for the remainder of Jordan E. Cooper’s rambunctious masterwork “Ain’t No Mo,” cutting social satire like this abounds.
Words fail to describe a show so spiritual that it takes flight. Breaking out into a praise and worship song might be more fitting; perhaps that’s why the play opens with Brother’s funeral. The company of actors — Marchánt Davis, Fedna Jacquet, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Shannon Matesky — drop down to their knees and reach to the heavens with the kind of rapture that calls the Winans, the Clarks, Mary and Mary into the room. The script refers to the play’s ensemble as Passengers 1–5. On one hand, “Passenger” refers to the way actors travel through the vignettes peppering Cooper’s play. (Scott Pask’s nimble set transforms into an abortion clinic, a “Real Baby Mamas of the South-Side” reality television set, a jail cell and more.) On the other hand, the moniker ties into the play’s narrative throughline: a (U.S. government-backed!) trip offered to every Black American to take them back to Africa. Pressure to get on that flight interpolates each scene.
Playwright Cooper steps into his story as Peaches, a gagging-ly fabulous drag queen cloaked in one of Emilio Sosa’s expressive costumes and Mia M. Neal’s voluminous wigs. Peaches is the attendant checking folks in at Gate 1619. She breaks down the rules of the skyway — no fighting, hitting your bad kids or stealing toilet paper — and warns passengers not to turn back. Otherwise, “The Powers That Be” will strip your melanin and leave you in America as a privileged white male.
This plaintive threat of Black dissolution reoccurs throughout Cooper’s romp. In the “Real Baby Mamas” sketch, for example, light-skinned cast member Matesky plays Rachonda (née, Rachel), a transracial woman — born white, but stepping into her paradoxical “truth” as a Black woman on the reality show. At the orders of an unseen TV producer, Rachonda and the rest of the Baby Mamas cast cluck on about, well, baby mama drama. The irony is: the darker-skinned, born-Black women surrounding Rachonda on the purple couch — a furniture piece forever affiliated with gossip thanks to Wendy Williams — are also performing a revved-up version of Blackness that sells; Rachonda is just getting in on the deal.
Rachel Dolezal famously enacted similar tomfoolery, but the dangerous act of commodifying Black femininity — called “Blackfishing” — plays out daily by influential artists like Jesy Nelson, Danielle Bregoli (Bhad Bhabie) and more. Architecting a scene like this, Cooper reveals himself as an artist who is at once wholly unique and deeply inspired by his predecessors. Baldwin’s lyricism, Giovanni’s fire and Shange’s bite sanctify his script.
“Ain’t No Mo” first debuted in 2019 at The Public Theater, and while its structure remains the same here, time afforded the script notable changes. Barack Obama was always the pilot of the Back-to-Africa flight, but now Vice President Kamala Harris is co-captain. It also remembers Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, the 10 victims in the racially-motivated mass shooting at a Buffalo Tops — the list, painfully, goes on. Fortunately, director Stevie Walker-Webb occupies the pilot seat, expertly flying us through the grief, laughter and call-and-response. His actors don’t just talk to the audience, they run into (and sometimes fall onto) it, too. A show this physically and emotionally layered could easily ruddy into confusion, but Walker-Webb keeps Cooper’s boundless imagination intact.
Miss Bag is both prop and the play’s seventh cast member. The physical bag (approximately large Telfar size) symbolizes “the carrier of our entire story as a people in this country as we make this glorious transition.” As such, the flight can’t leave without her, and if there’s one thing Peaches is gonna do, it’s secure the bag. Stripped bare, Peaches wrestles with the prop. But its invisible roots are so embedded in America’s soil that it won’t budge — our style, our inventions, our blood remain captive in the land of the free. Fortunately, “Ain’t No Mo” proves that artists like Cooper won’t let that thievery go down without a fight.
“Ain’t No Mo'” opened at the Belasco Theatre on Dec. 1, 2022. Due to an actor absence during press previews, press reps for the show rebooked some critics for future dates. Reviews have been released on a rolling basis.
Review photo: Joan Marcus.
Creative: Written by Jordan E. Cooper; Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb; Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré; Sound Design by Jonathan Deans and Taylor J. Williams; Wig Design by Mia M. Neal.
Produced by Lee Daniels and Brian Anthony Moreland. Wagner Johnson Productions serves as executive producer and general manager.
Cast: Jordan E. Cooper, Marchánt Davis, Fedna Jacquet, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Shannon Matesky, Nik Alexander, Jasminn Johnson, Michael Rishawn, Kedren Spencer, Brennie Tellu and Emma Van Lare.