Jordan E. Cooper’s rowdy, wily Ain’t No Mo’ is a satire that works. It digs in its heels and its teeth, balancing explosive playfulness with focused attack, fierce lament with equally fierce celebration. Cooper is young — the kind of young we like to get really jazzed about, not 30s-young but just-got-his-BFA-at-the-New-School-young — and for all its anger and sadness, his play has an audacity and inexhaustible sparkle to it that suits his age. He knows who his influences are and he’s not timid about picking up right where they left off. Why bother seeking the mythical Fountain of Total Originality, he seems to be arguing, when you’ve got a tested form to play around with and something of your own to add to it? His play is in many ways an intentional tribute to and variation on George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, which also had its premiere at the Public, in 1986. Wolfe knew that satire is often more likely to hit its target in shorter chunks — when it gets in, gets on with it, gets it over with, and gets out — so he created a series of sketches that wittily skewered both blackness and whiteness in America, starting with a routine in which a flight attendant happily welcomed audiences onto a “celebrity slave ship” headed from the Ivory Coast to Savannah. “We will be crossing the Atlantic at an altitude that’s pretty high,” Wolfe’s smiling stewardess chirps, “so you must wear your shackles at all times.”
Cooper grabs the sketch format and the flight attendant and takes off — but he reverses the direction of the flight. The individual scenarios of Ain’t No Mo’ are all bound together by the premise that the U.S. government has offered all black people in the country free plane tickets back to Africa. “Hello, this is Peaches speaking,” this flight attendant chirps into her microphone, “and I would like to be the first to welcome you to African American Airlines, where if you broke and black, we got yo back! … We will begin boarding in just about two or three minutes for our final ‘Reparations Flight’ with a destination of Dakar, Senegal. From there, you will be able to go aboard your connecting flights to any origin country shown in your ancestry.” Between sketches, we return to Peaches, who holds the show together like the self-possessed, no-tolerance-for-bullshit, pink-wig-and-power-suit-sporting queen that she is. She’s also Cooper himself, turning in a gloriously funny, sharp-as-acrylic-nails performance in drag. Significantly, the script specifies that Peaches is “a black man” — she’s not just here to coordinate the play’s imagined exodus; she’s here to speak truths that cut across identity, that, to continue Wolfe’s legacy, take aim at the intolerances, fears, and frailties embedded in both white and black American culture. “Seems like niggas will never accept any other nigga that don’t fit into their tiny idea of what a nigga can be,” declares Peaches, unbent and steely-eyed. “Any kind of sparkle that sparkles too sweet, they gotta spit on…. But I realized a long time ago that sometimes black hate black more than any white ever could.”
This is fierce stuff, and Cooper nimbly alternates it with the very funny. Peaches warns the invisible travelers preparing to board her flight that, Orpheus-like, they mustn’t look back once their tickets have been scanned. If they do, “the Powers That Be are unfortunately forced to morph your melanin exterior into that of a privileged white male.” When a fearful unfortunate disobeys her order, thunder rumbles and a blood-curdling twang splits the sky. The gods of drunken white dance music have spoken. Or, take the play’s opening, a prologue that brings us back to the halcyon days of 2008: Around a bedecked coffin, the ensemble wails in mourning as Marchánt Davis launches into a Jesus-praising funeral service. In the wake of Barack Obama’s election, black Americans have lost “an asset,” a “beloved brother” and “pillar of [the] community” … “Brother Righttocomplain.” Zing.
From a sizzling send-up of a reality TV show to a menacing sequence in which a wealthy, conservative black family (who aren’t planning to take that plane) encounter the spirit that lives in their basement — the true spirit of their identity and heritage, long chained in the basement by their assimilation-seeking patriarch — director Stevie Walker-Webb and the play’s agile, immensely energetic ensemble keep the stakes and style high. (They’re aided both by Montana Levi Blanco’s big statement costumes — he’s a designer with a gift for camp and outsize pop culture — and Kimie Nishikawa’s quickly transforming set, which turns an airport flight gate into a whole variety show’s worth of locations.) Fedna Jacquet is tightly wound and scary as the daughter of the wealthy family, determined to crush the black spirit in the basement, and as that spirit, Crystal Lucas-Perry is nothing short of a whirlwind. Her swaggering, shape-shifting speech in which she triumphantly announces her multiplicitous identity is the kind of rhetorical flight that lets an actor go all Blue Angels on a script. And she’s just as compelling on the opposite end of the spectrum, as one of the “Real Baby Mamas of the Southside” — the reality program that gives the whole ensemble a chance to flex their muscles, both inside and outside the cynically curated un-reality they’ve got to perform while the cameras are rolling. Ebony Marshall-Oliver simmers when things get serious, and Simone Recasner’s Rachonda — a blinged-out white lady who used to be “Rachel” and has elbowed her way onto the show as its first “trans-racial” cast member — is an especially unholy terror and a brave, nasty comic turn.
Though Ain’t No Mo’ never drags, the play is strongest when Cooper keeps a vivifying dose of humor in the mix. A set of more earnest sketches that feature women waiting — at an abortion clinic in one, to get out of prison in the other — have their moments, but lack the finely filed edge of the material that both horrifies us and makes us laugh. Cooper has a Key & Peele–esque gift for escalation. He knows how to push a send-up to its limits without getting into diminishing returns. At its best and wildest, Ain’t No Mo’ spirals into the kind of absurdism that, in frighteningly absurd times, feels like a mirror up to nature: It’s dead funny, but it’s no joke.