One thing’s for certain about the productions that D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company brings to the stage – they inevitably force the audience to think far outside of the box, well beyond the normal limits of their comfort zone.
And the comedy “Ain’t No Mo,” written by OBIE Award-winning playwright Jordan E. Cooper, now on stage through October 9, continues in that well-established Woolly Mammoth tradition.
One critic from The New York Times has described the play as “thrilling, bewildering, campy . . . scary, devastating and deep.”
But even that critique may well be an understatement because while the play meets the standards of the traditional comedy, it’s also loaded with dialogue, inflections, gestures and vernacular germane to Black culture that may leave more than a few members of the audience scratching their heads – either in confusion or in total disbelief.
Cooper, imbued with an artistry reminiscent of such luminaries as George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain, has created a superb satire, using humor to bring attention to the social and political problems that have plagued Blacks since our unwilling arrival upon America’s shores in 1619.
Incidentally, the play begins as Blacks must decide if they will heed the final boarding call for African American Airlines Flight 1619 bound to Africa. That’s right – Flight 1619. And with the benevolence of the U.S. government, every Black person in America has been offered a free ticket.
But there’s a catch – it’s a one-way ticket. So, while the journey may sound exciting, romantic – perhaps even a dream come true – few African Americans actually know where their ancestors lived prior to their enslavement. It’s a predicament that will be explored throughout the play.
However, for those who would rather face the unknown than remain in a land where equality has long been denied, they’re greeted at the gate by Peaches – a flashy drag queen who serves as the ticket agent. Among her duties will be the delivery of a warning to passengers that under no circumstances should they look back once they have begun to board the flight, lest they face grave consequences.
But who’s going to believe a drag queen, right? If even Lot in the Old Testament story could not persuade his own wife not to look back as he and his family left the wicked city of Sodom, what chance will Peaches have in convincing passengers to keep their eyes on the prize?
Scene after scene offers a kaleidoscope of situations of conflict – instances that lead to fluctuations between joy and pain – emotions that mark the opposite points on a Richter scale which Blacks did not create but which illustrates the extremes of joy and pain which most, if not all, African Americans must inevitably endure in their lifetime.
During one scene early in the play, we are invited to the funeral for Brother Right to Complain who, like so many other Black men, has been murdered. The Black preacher conducts the service in a style which some might describe as stereotypical – replete with call and response dialogue which begs for the audience’s participation, along with exaggerated gestures and the music commonly used during such services. But remember that stereotypical tropes come with a two-edged sword.
Ironically, the funeral comes at a bittersweet moment for Black Americans who also find themselves celebrating the election of the nation’s first Black president. For a few, brief moments, Blacks have reason to believe that their suffering has come to an end – just as it has for Brother Right to Complain. But has it really? And if so, for how long?
In one scene near the end of the play, the essence of Black life and culture, hidden from view by a Black patriarch who has attempted to assimilate in order to reap the benefits of white society, escapes from its cell, much to the horror of the well-to-do, next generation of offspring, ignorant of its very existence.
I must warn those who have yet to see the play, that a “lynching” will occur as this scene concludes. But who holds the rope and what leads them to such a heinous act, you’ll need to discover on your own. For this writer, the moment of revelation forced me to get up from my seat and rush outside for several gasps of fresh air.
The actors are superb, the writing is provocative and the topics – well, they represent those that confront Black Americans almost every day of our lives – no matter how long or short those lives may be.
One thing’s for sure – if you enter the theater just a little bit tired, you’re guaranteed to be struck with jolt after jolt of reality until you sit up in your seat – wide awake.
And as you leave the production, you may be even more surprised as you discover which characters took that fateful last flight to Africa and which chose to remain.
Woolly Mammoth no longer requires proof of vaccination for the 2022-23 season. However, masks are still required when not actively eating or drinking.