AIN'T NO MO' *** 1/2 out of ****
THE PUBLIC THEATER
If I tell you how funny Ain't No Mo' is, I worry that might diminish how angry it is. If I tell you how angry it is, that might diminish how smart it is. If I tell you how smart it is, you might not realize how funny it is. So I'll just tell you how good it is. Very good, very funny, very angry, very smart and very everything else you hope for from a committed, exciting play by a new talent (Jordan E. Cooper) who also delivers a high-wire act of a performance as the airline gate attendant Peaches. Yes, he does. Go.
The conceit of this kaleidoscope of a play is that time's up in America for black people. The U.S. government is offering a one-way ticket to their country of choice in Africa and making the very strong suggestion to get going while the going is good. As a bonus, the captain of the plane from African American Airlines is former President Barack Obama. ("We found him!") Other people of color? Well, the Hispanics and Latinos are on stand-by but the last flight out is filling fast.
It begins with an uproarious spoof of an African American funeral. The tightly enunciated preacher mopping his brow, the church ladies speaking in tongues and offering an "amen," the fiery speech -- all present and accounted for. And who is being buried? Mr. Right To Complain. Yes, once Obama became President the idea that black people no longer had the Right To Complain became gospel. So in one fell swoop Cooper mocks our cinematic conception of a Tyler Perry-like black funeral, the idea that Obama's election changed everything and the small fragile hope that it might actually be true. Oh and makes us laugh while giving his ridiculously talented cast the first of many chances to shine.
And we're off. Cooper offers one skit, one scathing and scabrous and unforgiving but humane take-down after another of racism and the privileged and white society and how your own community can sometimes be its own worst enemy. A reality TV show about "baby mamas" features a light-skinned woman who is touted as the world's first person to transition from one race to another. (I think Rachel Dolezal beat her, though.) A line of women patiently waiting for their chance to abort their babies before society can torture and squeeze the life out of the child on its own terms. A rich family bemused by the offer to leave the country (why would they leave when they're respected and accepted?) but worried about the disappearance of all their servants. And punctuating it all, the scene at the airport where Peaches maintains order amidst the chaos of that final flight.
It's a raucous, sobering work that's also balanced and generous. Most every actor gets a show-stopping bit of comedy and a moment to bare their humanity. Time and anger a righteous bit of speechifying pops in right after some over the top humor and it works 99% of the time. Director Stevie Walker-Webb and his entire creative team (especially the costumes of Montana Levi Blanco working in concert with the hair, makeup and wig designs of Cookie Jordan) do marvelous work in supporting the text and the actors on stage to make that happen. Each and every one of the performers is allowed to shine with a clutch of versatile, memorable characters.
My one caveat is that Cooper felt the need to underline and exclamation point the finale when his play was already so powerful. Did he worry a la Dave Chappelle that we would be laughing a little too loud and perhaps not always at precisely the right moment? He stripped down and tossed in rolling thunder (or tolling bells, I can't quite remember) and then dropped a giant American flag at the end so the cast could stand soberly in front of it, more like a line-up than a curtain call. It's as if he didn't quite trust us enough to get it, that we'd let him down. To be fair, if history and even current events have taught him one thing, it might just be that.
THEATER OF 2019
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Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.