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Theatre in Review: Ain't No Mo' (Public Theater)

Fedna Jacquet, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Marchánt Davis, Simone Recasner, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Joan Marcus

The world that playwright Jordan E. Cooper has imagined in Ain't No Mo' is full of signs and wonders, and the news isn't good. In an act of reparation that Ta-Nehisi Coates never saw coming, by national edict all black people are to be returned to Africa; those who choose to stay will be "transmogrified." (Nothing is said about, say, Haitians or anyone else from the Caribbean, and where they might be going, but Cooper is the kind of writer who specializes in sweeping strokes, internal logic be damned.) Meanwhile, black women line up at an abortion clinic in such numbers that they must wait forty days for an appointment; each is determined to save her unborn offspring from prison or nervous cops with itchy trigger fingers. On the set of The Real Baby Mamas of the South Side, a catfight is brewing over Rachonda (née Rachel), the show's first transracial cast member, who is stirring up trouble simply by being there. The haughty, neurotic members of a wealthy black family are horrified when an unreconstructed black slave, hidden in their basement, breaks through their banquet table and harangues them about their race's history. The figures in the play -- really, "characters" seems too strong a term for these squiggles -- are caught between a past that scalds and shames and a future that holds little promise. If, as the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote, "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born," Ain't No Mo' is a play positively loaded with crisis.

Lest you think Ain't No Mo' is a weighty work with monumental intentions, I rush to add that it is a random collection of sketches, most of them patchy attempts at satire linked by a diaspora theme. Stylistically, it is all over the place, a hodgepodge that mixes stark indictments and self-congratulatory excoriations with the lowest of camp. Even without the prompting of Oskar Eustis' program note, the play is likely to remind many of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe's explosively funny 1986 spoof on cultural representations of blacks. Ain't No Mo' is lost in its predecessor's shadow, however. Wolfe wielded the sharpest of satirical daggers; Cooper's preferred weapon is a cudgel.

Ain't No Mo's weaknesses include a taste for overkill, a preference for righteous rage over wit, and a tendency to speak so loudly and so fast that it becomes positively tongue-tied. The play begins on a clever note, with a gospel funeral for the recently passed Brother Right to Complain. Barack Obama has been elected president and, so the theory goes, all grievances will vanish. The unctuous minister, working himself up to an oratorical fury, says, "After today, we will have no reason to ever walk around with the weight of our ancestors' tears guiding our face down to the ground. After today, we may now name our children Tyquamotrin and MonaLisaLaKeishawanda in peace, without a giggle...or a sneer." As jokes go, it's not the best, but it indicates a certain promising flippancy. (An opening bit, in which Eustis' preshow announcement gets shouted down by a cast member, also seems to promise an evening spent skewering sacred cows.) This, however, is only the first of several long orations filled with cultural and historical references, each rattled off at such a pace as to be incoherent. This one climaxes with the minister urging the audience to stand and shout "The president is my n-----," a line that gets repeated several times, almost lovingly.

Only a few minutes in, humor - indeed, any point worth making - has been cast aside for lazy stratagems in pursuit of easy shock value. Giving away the game is the way the actor Marchánt Davis says the dreaded word -- slowly and with a nasal intonation designed for maximum incitement. This isn't satire -- it's provocation mixed with self-indulgence, two qualities that cancel each other out.

Much of Ain't No Mo' has a slightly picked-over feeling, thanks to subject matter that has been better handled elsewhere. The abortion clinic scene, with its fury about young black men and the law, advances N argument made with far more force by Antoinette Nwandu in Pass Over. The Real Baby Mamas scene has a few laughs and a clever-ish twist when, after the camera is turned off, everyone stops playing black. (One actress has a British accent.) But it still plays like third-rate sketch comedy, chasing after every obvious vulgarism. In their all-around uptightness, the haute-bourgeois family is not appreciably more sharply drawn than the characters on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and that mortifying slave figure, named Black, is given yet another of the scripts run-on rants: "I am black, as in you," she says. "As in she. As in him. As in Early 2000s corn rows black. As in OJ didn't do that shit, black. As in OJ did do that shit, black. As in make up a dance in the back alley and then see it on Good Morning America that next Monday, black. As in laugh a laugh that could tumble a mountain, black. As in 'Oh, is that a light bill?' 'Moving right along,' black. As in pay my bills on time, black. As in make personal phone calls on my work phone, black. As in using the work phone just for work, black." The speech goes on for nearly twenty lines, name-checking Clair Huxtable, Harriet Tubman, and Mr. Tibbs, the police detective once played by Sidney Poitier.

One also has the feeling that the recurring character of Peaches, an employee of the fictional African-American Airlines, exists largely because Cooper enjoys doing an old-fashioned drag act. In this regard, he is not up to the New York standard. On the phone with a friend, Peaches says, "After this flight, there will be no more black folk left in this country, and I know ya'll don't wanna be the only ones left behind because them muthafuckas will try to put you in a museum or make you do watermelon shows at SeaWorld and shit. Hurry up, or I will give your seat to some of the Latinos on standby...No, you don't need to buy nothing...They got lace-fronts in Africa too, bitch, just get here." Watermelon gags delivered by a drag queen: Is this 1980?

The director, Stevie Walker-Webb, certainly maintains a hard, bright pace, although he might have done a little something about reining in his cast, most of whom are doing some pretty heavy-duty mugging. (The perils of sitting in an aisle seat: During the funeral sequence, one actress leaned on me so often I began to feel like one of those ladies with a beef against Joe Biden.) In any case, Kimie Nishikawa's airport gate setting works fairly well, especially the reveal of an enormous airplane upstage; this moment is facilitated by Adam Honoré's fluent lighting design. Montana Levi Blanco has supplied some amusingly outrageous costumes, especially for Peaches and the Real Baby Mamas, getting a major assist from Cookie Jordan's hair and makeup designs. Emily Auciello's sound design includes several hip-hop tracks, a montage of news headlines and Obama's first election-night speech, the clanking of chains, and several airplane-related effects.

Cooper is clearly a writer who thinks big, and Ain't No Mo' may simply be a case of overreach by a writer whose ambitions currently exceed his ability - and the last few months have seen a number of new writers whose desire to provoke and demonstrate their woke bona fides exceeds their skills. The Public is a pretty reliable harvester of young talent, so the jury will remain out. But this is a surprisingly sloppy effort for a New York debut. -- David Barbour

(10 April 2019)

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