Antoinette Robertson as Coco.
The first time I heard the saying, “Behind every great man is a great woman,” my little-kid mind immediately thought, “Okay, but what’s behind a great woman?’ I was very literal as a kid, or perhaps it was that I was being raised by great women who, in my mind, were like superheroes. If Superman worked alone, so did they. Over time, I never gave the popular saying much thought.
But “Chapter IX” is about a firm believer in this “great man” quote, Colandrea “Coco” Conners. Coco was a brilliant kid from Chicago’s South Side. Bored with her education, she was selected for prep school by philanthropist Leonard McKellan, who helped her become the first member of her family to go to college. He also made her sketch out a life plan, a list of checkboxes for her to mark off as each milestone was crossed. Between the checkboxes for “get into Winchester” and “go to law school” is a checkbox for “find the one,” that is, the great man to stand behind.
“There was no version of her plan that didn’t include a great man,” our narrator tells us. “But Coco’s dating pool options looked like the audience at a John Mayer concert.” Since this show likes to throw shade for somewhat obscure reasons, I should point out that John Mayer is the guy who said his dick was a white supremacist. Coco’s dates don’t seem to have that problem, though their attempts to get in her drawers are for entertainment purposes only. They have no desire to wife her, so Coco pushes them aside before they can have any fun.
However, Troy is different. As the dean’s son, he has a collegiate pedigree: “Despite his paltry GPA, short attention span, and the fact he rejected her freshman year, Troy was a legacy kid who had the access Coco could really get behind.” So, Coco and Troy became an item. Let’s call them “TroCo,” the power couple that Sam loves to accuse of “Uncle Tomfoolery.”
Coco will defend TroCo to the death. While trying to enjoy his pan sausage, Lionel is beset upon by a furious Coco holding a copy of the Winchester Independent. She’s livid about how wimpy Lionel has made Troy. Coco screams about airing Troy’s dirty laundry, but Lionel whispers that he left out most of the juicier details. “Like what?” she asks.
Thankfully, Troy interrupts this potential gossip fest. And he’s not as mad as I expected him to be: Despite the breach of trust, Lionel’s article has brought Troy closer to his father. Papa Fairbanks gave him a watch, invited him to a fancy fundraiser, and, in Troy’s words, “he even insinuated that he loved me.” I suppose an insinuation is a lot better than flat-out denial.
Coco’s anger is completely dispelled when Troy informs her that the fundraiser is for the Hancocks, two very influential, Über-rich white people who have offered up $10 million to Winchester. Troy adds that Dean Fairbanks wants him to be more involved. “And less like a puppet?” Coco asks. “Wow, how long have you been sitting on that one?” Troy responds.
The knowledge that she may have a hand in shaping Winchester’s future sends Coco into a tizzy. She’s got big plans and she can’t stop talking about them. Her ramble is the future of TroCo in microcosm; she’s pulling all the strings and Troy has no say whatsoever. Director Nisha Ganatra and writers Chuck Hayward and Jack Moore toss in a nice homage to Faye Dunaway’s Network character, too. Smack dab in the middle of that callback to Dunaway’s famous sex scene, Troy commits a mortal sin: In ecstasy, he reaches to pull Coco’s hair … and it comes off. Completely.
Coco is so concerned about appearances that she ducks under the covers. “I don’t care about this wig!” Troy says. “What wig?!” Coco asks. “You know you’d still be fine as hell if you had no hair at all,” Troy adds. He puts on his wave cap as a show of “solidarity” and Coco returns to his arms. Since her wig is all jacked up, Coco opts to wear a beautiful, natural hairdo to the fundraiser. Her dress is slamming too. TroCo has come to slay.
At the fundraiser, all the brown folks issue mandatory giggles at the inane attempts at cleverness from the guests of honor. After all, $10 million will, to quote Chris Rock, “Make a bald spot into a part.” It will also make Winchester University do the Hancocks’ bidding. One thing in particular stands out: These rich white folks think “self-segregation,” a.k.a. Armstrong-Parker House, is the reason for all the racism against blacks on campus. They imply that they want to get rid of it.
“Allowing dorms to take their natural shape allows students the pride in creating their own enclaves,” Dean Fairbanks tells them. “And it can reduce the feeling of otherness at Winchester,” Professor Hobbs says. The Hancocks say they opened a charter school in Africa, therefore they’re more qualified to understand race relations. They also want the town hall meeting to remain without protest. “Surely our generosity buys some consideration,” Mrs. Hancock says in an ominous tone.
Meanwhile, Professor Hobbs and Troy are huddled into a corner, whispering. This woman is the worst cougar ever. Whenever she interacts with Troy in public, she’s so blatantly sexual that even Stevie Wonder could see that they’re screwing. Coco sneaks up on them, singing, “Secrets, secrets are no fun! Secrets, secrets hurt someone!” Turns out they’re talking about Hobbs’s upcoming wedding to her fiancée, Monique.
“I think that went well,” says a clueless Troy about the fundraiser. Coco reminds him that these people want to do away with Armstrong-Parker. “Trust me, I speak fluent WASP,” she says. Keep in mind that when Armstrong-Parker was first built, the university couldn’t keep its brown folks separate fast enough. Hell, in 2015, they were forcing all black students into the house. Once Armstrong-Parker gets too publicly prideful, its rich African-American history has to be dismantled. Because post-racial means everybody’s white.
Dear White People echoes this message by finally giving Nia Long something important to say. “Why do you think you’re here?” Professor Hobbs asks TroCo. “You’re here to show that not all black students want to burn this place down. You’re props. If integrating AP is the only thing separating this school from losing one of its top donors, what do you think is gonna happen?”
Sensing her potential influence slipping, Coco tries to get Troy to convince Sam to cancel the protest. When Troy correctly says that Sam won’t listen to him, Coco demands that he “make her listen.” Coco then uses the oldest trick in the book to force Troy to accidentally admit he’s been having an affair with Professor Hobbs. This sends Coco into the bathroom to sob. Inside, she runs into buck-nekkid Lionel.
This scene is a welcome bit of slapstick, but it also cuts deeper than anticipated. DeRon Horton does a great job awkwardly holding up his towel to hide Lionel’s nakedness, a pose he keeps the entire scene. “Now I know what you didn’t write about,” Coco says. “You mean the pee stuff?” asks Lionel. “The Nika stuff!” says Coco. Then, in a moment that shows the depth of Coco’s means of observation, she tells Lionel, “It’s not as good as you think it is. Being with him.”
The next day, Coco goes to the radio station to see Sam, who is shocked by her new hairdo. “I mean, I love it!” Sam says. “But do you need money? Are you high?” Coco asks Sam not to protest because she thinks it will cause Armstrong-Parker to be integrated. Sam chews her out, saying she’s a slave to Troy’s thinking. Troy shows up unannounced, and Sam kicks them both out.
Troy is livid about Coco’s decision to do something she had asked him to do. Her lack of faith in him is nothing new, and to be honest, Troy’s not very dependable. But he has some truth for her. “What do you like about me?” he asks, eliminating sex and power and looks. Coco has no answer. “You don’t like me. You like the idea of me, or the idea of us,” he says angrily. Coco realizes this is true. TroCo is an ideal, not a sustainable reality. But that doesn’t stop her from laying some truth on Troy: “I’m smarter than you. I’m more ambitious than you. Thirty years from now, when I’m the second black female president, all you’ll be able to do is think about me, and I won’t remember your name.”
“I hope you’re right,” Troy says.
Back in “Chapter IV,” Coco’s final glance at us was mysterious. We know exactly what she’s saying to us this time.