Broadway Review: AIN’T NO MO’ (Belasco Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on December 23, 2022

in Theater-New York

GIMME MO, MO, MO

What would happen if every African American in the United States left the country en masse? And not only would we leave physically but as we left, all of our contributions, innovations, inventions and influences that have benefitted American culture would leave with us. The disappearance of the African American presence from the United States is not a new concept and has already been addressed in fiction and real life. From George Schuyler’s Harlem Renaissance novel Black No More to Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement to Douglas Turner Ward’s play Day of Absence — and many more — the idea of mass African American disappearance from the U.S. has existed in the imagination and real life efforts for years. In Jordan E. Cooper’s brilliant and hilarious new play disguised as a sketch show, Ain’t No Mo’ at the Belasco Theatre, Cooper also goes to this familiar well. What he draws out, however, is a biting, truthful, up-to-date version of this fantasy and the reasons why it might still be valid in 2022. Through his perceptive and phenomenally funny lens, Cooper strings together a series of extended sketches (stand alone short plays really) that explore this idea from a post-Obama worldview. The embodiment of the phrase “Unapologetically Black”, Jordan’s work shines a still-necessary light on reasons outside and inside the African American community as to why mass departure might not be a bad idea. His clever and comedic writing, performed by one of the most talented and versatile casts currently on Broadway, creates a slam-dunk performance of equal parts hilarity and pathos that is not to be missed. Sadly, it is set to close this week on December 28.

 Jordan E. Cooper

With the 2008 election of United States President Barack Hussein Obama, a black man named “Righttocomplain” can finally be laid to rest. Because, surely, African Americans will no longer have reason to complain because the President is finally black and  “our nigga”.  After an elaborate opening funeral sequence that begins with this universal hope and ends with the reality that not only did things not really improve for the community but, in some ways, became worse, we go to the airport. There, African American Airlines counter attendant Peaches instructs us on boarding procedures for the last plane out of the country. Turns out that in response to this latest disappointment for the Black community, all African Americans received an email with flight info to leave the country and the last plane is now boarding, piloted by Obama and Kamala Harris. There is the option to stay but the treatment of those remaining will be so horrific, it’s probably best to go. And, as Peaches reminds us, be sure to leave your contributions to American society in “Miss Bag” — a special piece of luggage that will hold all the music, science, business, art, etc. that African Americans gave, both willingly and not, to America. As the show continues, we go back and forth between Peaches at the boarding gate and several scenarios that explore reactions to the mass exodus by various levels of Black society. But as departure nears, can America’s legacy really be left behind?

Marchant Davis and cast

The twenty-something Cooper not only wrote the show but also plays the fabulous Peaches, who has to be one of RuPaul’s first cousins. While serving all the surface look and snappiness of a top-notch Glamazon, Cooper endows his creation with a depth, intelligence, perception and courage that is riveting. While Peaches can have us rolling in the aisles one moment, she can also reveal a vulnerability and truth that sends us searching for Kleenex. One of most moving moments of the show is when she berates a passenger for thinking the boarding process should be “easy” explaining how “easy” is not part of Black people’s experience. She also admits that as a gender non-conforming person, she is terrified to go to an all Black environment as she still has to board with the same men who beat her up last night for being “different” — abuse she’s received within the Black community her entire life.

Cystal Lucas-Perry and Ebony Marshall-Oliver

What’s also very impressive about Cooper’s writing is how strongly placed within his generation it is. His aesthetic has no trace of the respectability politics of the Civil Rights generation and, while he includes more than a few pop references (a line from The Golden Girls theme song is included in the Reverend’s sermon at the funeral) he boldly calls out the contradictions and problems within the much more inclusive world that he’s experienced by comparison. His seems to be a plea for respect of humanity so the shortcomings in this area in both the black and white communities serve as fodder for his biting satire.

Fedna Jacquet, Shannon Matesky, Marchant Davis,
Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver

An excellent ensemble of brilliant, funny, versatile actors perform Cooper’s words. What’s most impressive is while they clearly know how to play the broad, obvious style of most sketch comedy — each actor delivers complete human beings, not surface composites, of their respective characters. And the entire ensemble of Fedna Jacquet, Marchant Davis, Shannon Matesky, Ebony Marshall-Oliver and Crystal Lucas-Perry play wonderfully together. In one scene, Davis movingly plays the ghost of a young man whose death at the hands of police at a traffic stop (think Philando Castile) went viral, then dexterously switches to an extremely gay and fluffy host of a Real Housewives-type TV show in the next scene. Lucas-Perry can go from a bubbly, oblivious, hair-tossing television anchor to a hardened, butch prisoner getting her first taste of real freedom (a stunning performance). Matesksy spans a loud-mouthed, Rachel Dolezal inspired, Black culture appropriating Real Housewife to a mousy spouse in an upper-class Black couple. Marshall-Oliver essays a neighborhood sista-girl in a local health clinic one moment and in another, she’s a bedazzled Black woman proudly defending her authentic Blackness (and her integrity) against the artifice of Reality TV. Jacquet presents a heart-broken young widow seeking an abortion before the police have a chance to kill her unborn son once he’s alive and also the desperate, blond-haired matriarch of an upper-crust Black family who succeeded by literally keeping their Blackness (a hilarious Lucas-Perry) tied up and hidden in the basement. And these are just a few of the many characters this marvelous cast inhabits.

Crystal Lucas-Perry

Director Stevie Walker-Webb proves an expert in this genre, keeping each sketch perfectly pitched and staged. He allows his actors to bring out what’s underneath the comedy in Cooper’s layered writing, while keeping the performances clear and matched. What could use a bit more clarity is the overall trajectory of the play and how each scene adds to the narrative. The show still makes its point but a little more intentionality on how these varied parts add together could make a great show even better and more pointed. Costume Design by Emilio Sosa is very impressive and instantly defines the multiple transformations of each actor. Scott Pask’s expert Scenic Design that uses masking to telescope the playing space is effective and believably creates multiple, disparate locations.

Ain’t No Mo’ is a knee-slapping, gut-busting, thought-proving, tear-inducing, welcome time in the theater. Already on Broadway at his young age, audiences should look forward to hearing from Jordan E. Cooper for many years to come. Because the issues he addresses are still here. Let’s hope it doesn’t take his entire lifetime before these issues ain’t no mo’.

photos by Joan Marcus

Ain’t No Mo
Belasco Theatre, 111 W 44th Street
opened December 1, 2022; closes December 28, 2022
for info, visit Ain’t No Mo B’way
www.facebook.com/AintNoMoBway
www.twitter.com/AintNoMoBway
www.instagram.com/AintNoMoBway

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