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Theatre in Review: Ain't No Mo' (Belasco Theatre)

Jordan E. Cooper. Photo: Joan Marcus

Ain't No Mo', which is scheduled to depart the Belasco on Sunday after 22 performances, is the second show to disappear from Broadway in unseemly haste. (The other is KPOP, which closed this past Sunday.) This phenomenon has caused much consternation, although for most of Broadway history it was the norm, with many shows each season running fewer than a dozen or so performances. As Walter Kerr noted -- I'm paraphrasing here, slightly -- the rule in the theatre since Aeschylus has been failure.

This is, of course, cold comfort to those involved in these productions, many of them young talents having their first Broadway experience. More troubling for many is the fact that both KPOP and Ain't No Mo' are the work of mostly BIPOC artists, lending credence to the allegation that Broadway is a monolithic white institution resistant to people of color. The speech made at the end of Saturday's matinee by a distraught Jordan E. Cooper, playwright and star of Ain't No Mo', pretty much advanced this argument, as do his subsequent interviews with industry press.

It's a tough charge to make stick when the most recent Tony Award winning musical is A Strange Loop; MJ rakes in a king's ransom each week; and the current lineup includes plays by Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan Lori-Parks, and August Wilson, plus a revival of Death of Salesman that reimagines the Lomans as a Black family. The musicals & Juliet, 1776, Six, and Some Like it Hot feature racially diverse casts; the latter show has a book by a Latino and Black writing team. In previews are Between Riverside and Crazy, starring Stephen McKinley Henderson, and The Collaboration, about Jean-Michel Basquiat, starring Jeremy Pope. And let us not forget a little thing called Hamilton.

Perhaps we should look elsewhere to understand the commercial failures of KPOP and Ain't No Mo'. I've had my say about KPOP, which you can read here. Aint' No Mo', which was well-received at the Public Theater in 2019, is, to my mind, a niche entertainment by a talented, but unfocused, young writer who, in this case, prizes provocation over wit. Over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes, it expends considerable lung power on any number of vital issues relating to race in America today. But Cooper, who is only twenty-seven, wants to say everything all at once, very loudly and very fast, at a level of intensity that quickly becomes exhausting; it's a burst of comic rage that wears itself out.

Ain't No Mo' is a series of sketches based around the concept of a government program designed to fly all African Americans back to their continent of origin. First up, we attend the metaphoric funeral (accompanied by casket and cross) of "Brother 'Righttocomplain'," who, we are told, has expired because of the 2008 presidential election. Like so much else in the play, the pastor's sermon is a run-on rant of cultural and historical references, in this case reaching a climax as he coaxes the audience into chanting, "The president is my n---a," over and over. You certainly can't say that Cooper disguises his intentions.

The scene ends in a flurry of sound effects, matching Obama's triumphant election night speech with a montage of subsequent news reports about the killings of Black men and women. It's an intentional outrage with a point: Obama's two terms in office hardly ushered in a new era of equality; indeed, one could say that, in certain quarters, it opened a Pandora's box of white rage. But the sketch also sets the tone for the rest of the show, presenting a strained metaphor in grotesquely overstated fashion, relying on trigger words and sometimes earsplitting vocal delivery.

This awkwardness persists throughout. A sketch set in a community center is based on the notion that hundreds of thousands of Black women are getting abortions rather than see their children meet violent ends later on; it's a potentially strong idea that suffers from the inclusion of too many clashing comic and tragic elements. The members of a moneyed clan resist the idea of mass deportation until a figure, clad in slave garb, escapes from their basement, offering a rapid-fire litany of Black references that leaves them terrified and the audience struggling to hear the lines. A sketch about three women being released from incarceration strikes a serious note that jars against the wildly overacted antics seen elsewhere.

Arguably the funniest sketch centers on a reality series titled The Real Baby Mamas of the South Side, featuring five catfight-ready divas whose over-the-top ghetto attitude is entirely the product of their acting skills. (One of them has a British accent off-camera.) The only "authentic" member of the company is Rachonda, née Rachel, who is billed as "transracial." "I joined the show after my first procedure and I still have almost forty more to go," she says. "It has been amazing seeing my journey from where I started." The other ladies aren't buying this at all, leading to a major dustup that ends up in the destruction of their show's set.

Providing a thread of sorts is Cooper, who appears in drag as Peaches, an airline gate agent with an outrageous line of patter. (I'd quote some of it, but once I took out the F bombs and N words, it would look like a Mad Lib.) Cooper is not a subtle performer -- a moment of surprise yields a flurry of strenuous double takes -- and these scenes, which feature Miss Bag, a mirrored traveling case that is "the carrier of our entire story as a people in this country as we make this glorious transition," become repetitive.

As has been noted many times, the model for Ain't No Mo' appears to be The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe's 1986 satire. But where Wolfe wielded a comic dagger, Cooper brandishes a club, a methodology aggravated by director Stevie Walker-Webb, who encourages the cast members to make the broadest possible choices. At least Crystal Lucas-Perry, late of 1776, scores the most points as an overcome-with-the-spirit church lady, a clueless television news reporter, and a traumatized prisoner grappling with the possibility of release. I also liked Marchánt Davis as the pot-stirring host of The Real Baby Mamas and Shannon Matesky as the epically self-involved Rachonda ("I have a dream.")

The production design is often more amusing than anything in the script. Scott Pask's scenery makes good use of old-fashioned painted drops to call up several locations, with suitable lighting for each supplied by Adam Honoré. Emilio Sosa's costumes include a traffic-stopping uniform for Peaches and some gleefully over-the-top ensembles for the Baby Mamas cast; he is aided throughout by Mia M. Neal's transformative hair and wig designs. The sound design, by Jonathan Deans and Taylor Williams, starts out awfully loud but modulates in the later scenes; the designers have fun with excerpts from Donna Summer's "Last Dance," Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love," and The Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA."

In interviews, Cooper has argued that Ain't No Mo's box office troubles are due to inadequate marketing, and he may have a point. The show's poster features a sleek airborne jet with the subtitle "A Broadway Comedy," as if the play were Plaza Suite or something. (He has also cited the lack of a star, which led to some interesting speculation online: Would the show have done better with, say, Billy Porter as Peaches? We'll never know.)

To me, another, deeper problem is at work. In the past two seasons, several promising young playwrights have been rushed onto Broadway before they are ready, ushered in by producers eager to keep up with changing times. But, last season, Pass Over wasn't well-served in a theatre much too big for it, and the very slight domestic comedy Chicken and Biscuits was put on too early, when audiences, still wary about the pandemic, were attracted only to blockbusters. This season, KPOP underwent a profound sea change (not for the better) en route to the Circle in the Square Theatre, and the strident satire of Ain't No Mo' was always going to be the heaviest of lifts. There's a lesson here: The goal of a more diverse Broadway is more than laudable; it is necessary. But people need to think more clearly about how to attain it. --David Barbour

(13 December 2022)

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