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Ain’t No Mo’, a blistering 2019 tragi-comedy now making its regional premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (and soon, Baltimore’s Center Stage) ahead of its Lee Daniels-produced Broadway debut this fall, is a collection of vignettes linked by a wicked satirical premise: In the near-future United States, all descendants of enslaved people have been offered a free, one-way ticket to the lands of their ancestors.
The White supremacist rallying cry of “Go back to Africa!” has become official U.S. policy. Those who stay behind “will face extreme racial transmogrification,” according to a governmental email an understandably bewildered Black recipient reads. (The subject line is “Congratulations, You Is Free!”)
The show is, as director Lili-Anne Brown says in an interview printed in the show’s program, “Black as hell.” She goes on to characterize Ain’t No Mo’—whose playwright, Jordan E. Cooper was only 24 when the play debuted at the Public Theatre in 2019—as emblematic of a new generation of “Black plays that are not concerned with whiteness. They’re just Black plays that speak to Black people and talk about Black shit. The end.”
I quote her to acknowledge that, as a White person born during the Carter administration, I am by no means the primary audience for this, and that my modest critique must and shall be taken with a grain (or possibly a mine) of salt. For what it’s worth: I liked the show a lot. Cooper is a visionary writer, equal parts Jordan Peele and Tony Kushner. If the eight scenes he’s woven into this sharp-edged fantasia of post-“post-racial” Black America are not equally revelatory, and one or two persist long after their comic-or-dramatic payload has been exhausted (the show runs 130 minutes, sans intermission), the high points are more than enough to warrant a strong recommendation.
Cooper borrows a device from George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum, wherein a flight attendant overseeing the boarding of a “celebrity slaveship” was the connective tissue among scenes sending up various aspects of the Black American experience of the time. (The Colored Museum was staged at New York’s Public Theatre 32 years before Ain’t No Mo’ opened there in 2019.) In Cooper’s update, we have Peaches (Jon Hudson Odom, energetic and persuasive as always, if not especially challenged by this sassy drag queen archetype), the solo flight staffer in charge of boarding the last plane out: African American Airlines Flight 1619.
She’s also in charge of the audience. Peaches warns us from the jump that this is not the sort of show where we’re meant to watch in reverent silence: “This is your church,” she says. “And for those of you who are quiet, obedient, and unresponsive in your church, consider this your Black church, your sanctuary, your juke joint.”
Before we return to the near-future, there’s a flashback to the night of Nov. 4, 2008, when a fictional Jheri-curled Pastor Freeman (Breon Arzell, attacking the part with relish) is conducting a raucous funeral for an abstraction Cooper has named “Brother Righttocomplain.” With Barack Obama having decisively won the presidency, “we will have no reason to ever walk around with the weight of our ancestors’ tears guiding our face down to the ground,” the minister tells his congregation. The crescendo of this prologue, an aural collage recounting several of the violent tragedies Black Americans have suffered in the ensuing decade-plus, is too chaotic in presentation to supply the sobering tonal shift that was doubtless intended in the flash-forward. A quiet, mournful transition might’ve served the material better.
The disparate scenes that follow each explore individual strains and sources of Black pain. In one, a man tries to persuade his partner to reconsider as they wait together, with tens of thousands of others, for an abortion at the Sister Girl We Slay All Day Cause Beyoncé Say Community Center. In another, a TV producer encourages the cast of a trashy TV show called The Real Baby Mamas of the South Side to conform to crude stereotypes of Black mothers, even as one of them, a Rachel Dolezal analog played by Shannon Matesky, is revealed to be trying to pass as Black.
While Odom’s Peaches returns periodically, the other five players take on new roles in each scene. Midway through the show, Peaches introduces another character (albeit an inanimate, nonspeaking one), Miss Bag—“a glorious and magical carrier,” per the script, that sings in the voice of Nina Simone and contains the entirety of Black Americans’ innumerable contributions to the U.S., in the same magical-realist way a single airplane might ferry tens of millions of Black people across the North Atlantic. You might’ve expected the design team to do something fabulous. But it’s just a plain, lowercase-b black handbag.
It’s an understated design choice for an unsubtle metaphor, but restraint—in design as in performance— is not what this material demands. The cast—a versatile mix of Woolly company members Odom and Shannon Dorsey, and out-of-towners Azrell, Matesky, Brandi Porter, and LaNisa Frederick—has a strong command of the show’s varying tones and styles.
Cooper’s voice, while distinct, shares a mordant sensibility with that of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, another Black playwright who found innovative ways to engage with racial history in plays staged at Woolly Mammoth, and whose work may have influenced Cooper. Both men express righteous fury through such lacerating humor that directors have occasionally seemed defeated by how to make sure the more lyrical aspects of their work get heard, too.
In Ain’t No Mo’s most powerful segment, Dorsey and Frederick play inmates preparing to be released from prison with startlingly different responses. In this scene, Cooper’s voice and Frederick’s tender performance find aesthetic harmony. Maybe it’s unfair to ask that every chapter in what is essentially a sketch show be as fully realized as that.
Ain’t No Mo’, written by Jordan E. Cooper and directed by Lili-Anne Brown, plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through Oct. 9. woollymammoth.net. $5–$62.