The lights are down barely three seconds before mayhem breaks loose at the Public Theater’s production of “Ain’t No Mo’.” That’s when the regular recorded welcome from Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, gets rudely and hilariously hijacked by Peaches, an airport gate attendant making a preboarding announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen” — and that’s as much as I can quote, because Peaches, who is also the play’s author, Jordan E. Cooper, has quite the vocabulary. But the gist is this: Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.
Yes, “Ain’t No Mo’,” which opened on Wednesday, is bumpy. It’s also thrilling, bewildering, campy, shrewd, mortifying, scary, devastating and deep.
What Mr. Cooper has attempted, and the director Stevie Walker-Webb has brought close to fruition, is nothing less than a spiritual portrait of black American life right now, with all its terrors, hopes and contradictions. But this is no naturalistic living room drama. To bring his jumble of feelings to life, Mr. Cooper grabs every genre he can. Satire, allegory, minstrelsy and speculative fiction all come into it.
The result is an anthology of loosely linked bits built on a shocking premise: What if at some point in the “beyond now,” in order to solve the problem of racism in America without whites having to do anything, the government offered all black citizens descended from slaves one-way airfare back to Africa? And what if almost all of them took up the offer?
Certainly Peaches plans to go; it’s a good deal with a lousy alternative. “If you stay here,” she says, “you only got two choices for guaranteed housing, and that’s either a cell or a coffin.”
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As it turns out, Peaches is the sole check-in agent for African-American Airlines flight 1619. (The number isn’t random.) Dressed in a pink faux-alligator-skin suit, with a model airplane perched in her matching pink wig, she has the brilliant patter but not quite the patience to get the job done.
You might say the same of the play, which alternates between scenes with Peaches that are reliably effective and others, in various styles, that sometimes land and sometimes crash.
And sometimes soar. The first, set on Nov. 4, 2008, is an orgiastically over-the-top funeral for Brother “Righttocomplain” — an allegorical figure representing centuries of justifiable black grievance. (“He had many mothers and fathers, and too many children with too many mothers to even begin to count.”) With the election that night of President Barack Obama, and thus the end of “our suffering as people in this wretched land,” he is finally being laid to rest.
Or so the wailing mourners, led by their supercharged, Jheri-curled pastor (Marchánt Davis) believe. But the rest of the play, which takes place after the election of President Trump, revokes the anticipated respite from racism. What follows is worse: a backlash against black Americans inflamed by white fear of their rising status.
The result is a twofold destruction of souls and bodies. In a segment called “Circle of Life,” set at the “Sister Girl We Slay All Day Cause Beyoncé Say Community Center,” Trisha (Fedna Jacquet) waits for an abortion, unwilling to give birth to another victim. She is No. 73,545 in a line of millions.
In “Real Baby Mamas of the Southside,” a parody of the Real Housewives franchise, black women enact scripts that portray them as tacky “bitches” and “hos.” Even stranger, and funnier until it isn’t, is that white women want to enact those scripts, too. One of the Baby Mamas — Rachonda, née Rachel (Simone Recasner) — resents her “transphobic” castmates for mocking her journey to blackness, which involves a regimen of daily doses of Hennessy and “The Color Purple.”
The enjambment of outrage and outrageousness electrifies these scenes. But as the exodus approaches and the material grows darker, the show sometimes loses its edge. “Green,” about rich black families who have literally buried their blackness, doesn’t really mesh with the play’s superstructure. And Peaches’ final scene, as the flight to Africa departs with millions on it, eventually buckles under the weight of its needing to end the play with a bang.
“Ain’t No Mo’” is no less rich for that. Despite its big laughs and no-you-didn’t surprises, it builds a trenchant argument. Mr. Cooper is asking whether racism is so hopelessly intertwined with black life — and black life so integral to American identity — that separation, even if desirable, is impossible. What do the émigrés leave behind when they board that plane? What does America lose in the process?
I will not give away how Mr. Cooper literalizes these questions with a powerful piece of luggage called Miss Bag. Nor why, in a beautiful scene, a guard (Ebony Marshall-Oliver) must beg the last inmate of a women’s prison (Crystal Lucas-Perry) to take her freedom. I will only say that the best parts of “Ain’t No Mo’” master a complicated trick: pulling wrenching drama out of a party hat of borrowed theatrical attitudes.
Quite an achievement for a 24-year-old playwright who was in middle school when Mr. Obama was elected and is making his professional debut. But Mr. Cooper isn’t starting from zero. The play’s overall structure owes a big debt (acknowledged prominently) to “The Colored Museum” by George C. Wolfe, which in 1984 set out to blow up the previous 30 years of black representation in American culture. Peaches is in some ways a curtsy to Miss Pat, that play’s pink-clad stewardess character, who advises the passengers on a “celebrity slave ship” to fasten their shackles.
Mr. Cooper has a lot more to blow up now than even Mr. Wolfe did. (He started writing the play after the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the summer of 2016.) The play is not, in that sense, easy. It is scathing about whites but also about blacks. And, finally, happiest laughing about both.
It helps that Mr. Walker-Webb, directing his first Off Broadway production, has brought the play to such vivid, headlong comic life. The fabulous costumes by Montana Levi-Blanco do a lot of that work but so do Kimie Nishikawa’s sets, Adam Honoré’s lighting, Emily Auciello’s sound and, obviously, Cookie Jordan’s wigs. As good satire must, “Ain’t No Mo’” has a tightly unified aesthetic.
But to the extent it is not just satire, it makes unusual demands on its actors. The five so-called passengers, who play many characters in a broad range of styles, all shine, and Mr. Cooper as Peaches nearly explodes.
So yes: a bumpy flight.
But then, America is a bumpy flight. For some Americans it has been relentlessly so for 400 years. In trying to carve out new forms to explore that, Mr. Cooper — like other young black playwrights writing so expressively right now — is continuing the work of “The Colored Museum,” which asked, as Frank Rich wrote in his review for The New York Times, how black men and women could “at once honor and escape the legacy of suffering that is the baggage of their past.”
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the actress who plays Rachonda. She is Simone Recasner, not Ricasner.
Ain’t No Mo’
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