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Ain't No Mo'

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 27, 2019

Jordan E. Cooper
Photo by Joan Marcus

Ain't No Mo', a sharply satirical play about race in America opening tonight at the Public Theater, is hotter than a billy goat with a blow torch and at least ten times as funny, sad, hopeful, scary, and absurd, sometimes all at once.

Written by Jordan E. Cooper, a remarkably audacious young playwright, Ain't No Mo' is a jaw-dropping thrill ride from beginning to end, a heady blend of the over-the-top humor of Robert O'Hara (Bootycandy), the outrageousness of Jeremy O. Harris (Daddy), and the keen ear for dialog of Suzan-Lori Parks, whose own new play White Noise is also on view at the Public right now and makes for a perfect companion piece.

Following a particularly assertive welcoming announcement, the play opens on a funeral in a black church, where Pastor Freeman appears to be possessed either by the Holy Spirit or by the Godfather of Soul, it's hard to say which. Amid the wailing of the congregation and the exhortations of their leader, we learn that the deceased before us in the gold coffin is none other than Brother Righttocomplain. He is being laid to rest on this most auspicious of days, November 4, 2008, the day on which Barack Obama has been elected to be this nation's first black president. "After today," the preacher solemnly proclaims, "we will have no reason to ever walk around with the weight of our ancestors' tears guiding our face down to the ground." And then he adds in an immediate change of tone, "After today, we may now name our children Tyquamotrin and MonaLisaLaKeishawanda, in peace, without a giggle or a sneer."

In a blink of an eye, we go from heart-wrenching to boldly comic and then back again as the clock moves forward and the blessed promise of hope and change have all but vanished in the post-Obama political order. Surprisingly, or maybe not, in an era marked by a new surge of racist speech and deeds, years of empty talk of reparations to African Americans have reached a consensus. Every black American is being invited to board African American Airlines Reparations Flight 1619 that will take them on a one-way journey to Dakar, Senegal. (Latinos will be offered seats on a standby basis.)

If you are unfamiliar with the history of the slave trade, it helps to know that both 1619 and Dakar are highly significant. These represent, respectively, the year the first slave ship arrived in Virginia with its human cargo, and the point of embarkation from the westernmost point in West Africa. This flight, with Captain Obama at the controls, represents an opportunity to restart things, a symbolic reversal of the Middle Passage.

The airlift is used most effectively as a framing device to allow us to observe various groups of African Americans who will be joining the mass exodus. There is no doubt here that black lives most definitely matter, but no one is being given a free pass from the sting of satire. Not the participants in a reality show that focuses its lens on its "first transracial cast member," Rachonda (née Rachel), a young white woman who considers herself to be in transition to becoming black; and not the wealthy upper class African Americans who strive mightily, but without success, to literally suppress every trace of their ancestry. To balance things, there are also several deeply moving scenes, including one that takes place in a women's prison where the inmates are being set free to join the exodus, and another in which a black woman is waiting at an abortion clinic, unwilling to bear a child she fears will never live long enough to grow up.

Both the playwright and director Stevie Walker-Webb take a no-holds-barred approach to the entire two-hour enterprise, frequently threatening to send everything careening out of control yet somehow managing to keep it all on track. It is truly an awesome evening that never lets up for a moment, with every line of dialog and every performance by the altogether exquisite cast contributing immeasurably to the production. The wonderful group of players consists of six actors, each taking on multiple roles labeled as Passenger 1, Passenger 2, and so forth. They are Fedna Jacquet, Marchánt Davis, Simone Recasner, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry, with the playwright, Jordan E. Cooper taking on the key role of our guide Peaches. Miss this one, and you are missing something special indeed!

Ain't No Mo'
Through April 28
LuEsther Hall at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: