Belasco Theatre, New York – until 26 February 2023
All aboard the final flight of African American Airlines, a journey taking every last Black American, tired and pissed off from being sidelined, passed over, disappointed, hurt, viewed with suspicion and just plain disrespected, to a new life in Africa.
Such is the premise of Jordan E Cooper’s extraordinary new play, just opening on Broadway in a gorgeously realised production by Stevie Walker-Webb that manages to combine the high gloss sheen New York ticket prices would seem to demand with a biting fury that feels raw and authentic. Shocking and bewildering this show frequently is, but it provides 100 minutes of thought-provoking, often rollicking entertainment that turns on a dime between hilarious and horrible.
Structurally, Ain’t No Mo is nearer to a sketch show or a revue than a traditional play, which allows a phenomenally talented quintet of performers to display some serious versatility as they switch between roles, playing styles and looks (the outstanding costume and wig designs are by Emilio Sosa and Mia M Neal respectively).
It also allows a broad examination of Black life in modern day America from a variety of different perspectives. Opening with a wondrously OTT, cartoon-like funeral with Marchant Davis’ pastor prowling the aisles of the theatre like a gospel preacher on acid whipping up audience response, it moves on to a scabrously funny harpoon on the Real Housewives franchise that also takes on cultural appropriation (Shannon Matesky is gloriously off-kilter as a character described as “trans-racial”, in other words a white woman hell bent on turning herself Black), and an aspirational family dinner blown apart by a figure, who might best be described as the essence of Blackness, newly released from shackles in the basement (Crystal Lucas-Perry, simultaneously frightening and energetically funny).
Holding the running theme of the soon-to-be-departing flight together, is the fabulous (literally) stewardess Peaches (performed usually by the author, but played at the preview I caught by the sensational understudy Nik Alexander). Peaches is terrific company: gossipy, judgemental, wise but sassy, and ultimately extremely affecting for reasons that I won’t spoil here. It’s during Peaches’ sections that Cooper’s writing really takes flight (pun intended) and as a character she’s a gift to audiences and the performer (Alexander invests her with charm, attitude and killer comic timing, then finally a vulnerability that pierces the heart.)
Not every section lands perfectly, and a few scenes outstay their welcome, but when Cooper’s script really hits its mark it’s unforgettable. At just 27, Cooper is the youngest playwright in Broadway history, and Ain’t No Mo’ feels like a young work, but, for the most part, in the best possible sense, in that it has a freshness, originality and “fuck you” outspokenness that braces thrillingly.
The only scene where the writing matches what Cooper has given himself as Peaches is one set in abortion clinic and a young pregnant woman (a supremely affecting Fedna Jacquet, all the more poignant because the actress has just announced her own pregnancy in real life) chooses to end the life of her unborn child rather than allow them to face the horrors and injustices of growing up Black and poor. Meanwhile, her partner (Davis again, superb) tries to cajole her out of it, while another mother-not-to-be (Ebony Marshall-Oliver, just wonderful) pontificates comically. Comedy and tragedy co-exist effortlessly here, and there is a massive twist, revealed early on. The whole show is never less than engaging bit this sequence haunts and hurts.
Of all the actors, it’s probably the chameleonic Ms Lucas-Perry that gets the most opportunities to transform, which she does with remarkable skill, literally unrecognisable from scene to scene, whether as a trashily glamorous English babymama, a deeply damaged convict or a breezily glossy TV anchorwoman. The entire team is magnificent though, tackling the knotty, vital text with restraint or abandon as required.
For all its entertainment value (which is extremely high), and the visual flair of Scott Pask’s colourful sets and Adam Honoré’s flashy lighting, Ain’t No Mo’ is ultimately a work of seriousness and significance. Yes, it’s a great time in the theatre but it stays with you long after the final curtain. It is a worthy and welcome addition to the Black excellence suffusing Broadway at the moment with works such as the stunning Best Musical Tony winner A Strange Loop and the acclaimed, starry revivals of Topdog/Underdog, The Piano Lesson and Death Of A Salesman. Cooper’s multitude of characters may be going on a journey, but so are we in the audience.