Ain’t No Mo, currently at the Woolly Mammoth Theater, is a mixed bag. It has high aspirations to make a political statement but falls flat in multiple places along the way.
The play’s premise is provocative: Playwright Jordan Cooper dares to explore the question, What if the U.S. government offered Black Americans one-way plane tickets to Africa to escape racism? The result is an absurdist and satirical critique of African Americans and our society, ranging from Barack Obama’s presidency through the Trump presidency and present day. Think the sardonic schtick in Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, but this time they’re leaving America.
The play is divided into skits– some more effective than others.
The narrator, an over-the-top Black drag queen named Peaches, played expertly by Jon Hudson Odom, is dressed to kill by costume designer Yvonne Miranda, who is also the airline attendant for African-American Airlines flight 1619, the last flight to Africa. (The flight number is a nod to the 1619 Project– an endeavor to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the United States national narrative.)
Although her character is mostly humorously outlandish, she occasionally comes up with some deep statements. “If you stay here, you only got two choices for guaranteed housing, and that’s either a cell or a coffin,” she theorizes.
The first group skit is a formulaic old-timey African American funeral with exaggerated gyrations of grief for the deceased, “Brother Righttocomplain,” who represents justifiable black grievances. The funeral takes place the night Obama is elected, thus Brother Righttocomplain’s hard life is over – or so they think. The sizzling pastor, complete with Jheri-curl hair and a portrait of Obama on the back of his robe, leads the highly charged service while the attendees whoop and holler in ecstatic response.
After Obama’s reign and during the Trump era (although Trump isn’t mentioned), things go south for our beloved cast members, who play multiple roles in numerous scenes.
In a dark commentary titled “Circle of Life,” Black women wait among thousands of others for their numbers to be called to get abortions, (one woman is number 73,545). She ignores the pleas of her man to keep the baby and insists that abortion is the better alternative to raising a baby in systemic racism.
In a disturbing parody of “Real Housewives,” a skit called “Real Baby Mommas of the Southside” showcases Black women having to act out cliched tacky personas of “bitches and whores” demanded by their White producers.
Another more somber skit takes place in a jail where Black women wait to be released so they can hop on board Flight 1619. One of the women fears change and needs to be cajoled to leave.
Despite its abundance of creative ideas, the play has a few major problems. It lasts two and a half hours with no intermission, which is a mistake. The audience needs a reprieve halfway through from the high-voltage and often off-color language. In addition, much of the dialogue is so dense and fast-paced that it is hard to comprehend what’s happening onstage and its significance. Often, I wondered to myself where it was going since the skits individually were thought-provoking, however it was unclear how they were related.
Still, Woolly Mammoth is known for producing experimental, fresh and new plays, and this production certainly fits into that category. In fact, Playwright Cooper is only 27 years old and wrote Ain’t No Mo while a student earning his BFA at The New School in New York.
“Ain’t No Mo is an absurdist satire that thrives because of the absurd (and frightening) time we live in,” writes Artistic Director Maria Manuela Goyanes in the program.
Most would agree with this statement. But for this extremely theatrical and stylized production, less would have been more.