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Review: Uninhibited AIN'T NO MO' at Baltimore Center Stage

Review: Uninhibited AIN'T NO MO' at Baltimore Center Stage

Ain't No Mo', by Jordan E. Cooper, directed by Lili-Anne Brown, through November 20 at the Head Theater, Baltimore Center Stage.

You can't experience or discuss Ain't No Mo', Jordan E. Cooper's just-opened show at Baltimore Center Stage, without taking your own race into account. Among many other things, the show is an exercise in being (to paraphrase director Lili-Anne Brown's remarks in the program, a "Black play that [speaks] to Black people and [talks] about Black shit." Black audience members will predictably respond to it differently and more knowledgeably than White audience-members like myself. One of the great things about this production, however, is that, landing as it has at what Artistic Director Stephanie Ybarra and Special Artistic Coordinator Sabine Decatur point out in the same program is a "predominantly white organization," it allows larger audiences a chance to listen in to the conversation and laugh, if more gently, at the jokes. I emphasize the jokes because, while not everything in the show is funny, much of it is irresistibly so. It was also worthwhile to compare the different reactions among the White and Black portions of the audience to individual lines, especially in light of an exhortation at the beginning for audience members to vocalize their responses and sing along at certain moments. In effect, the Black part of the audience was being directly disinhibited - a disinhibition it benefited everyone to witness.

I also have been at pains not to call it a play, because, while there is something like a plot, the show is really more of a theater piece, a series of sketches held together by the conceit of a flight carrying all of America's Black people back to Africa. It seems that this is not a Black-helmed Back to Africa venture, but an effort by American society to expel its Black citizenry. Those who refuse to be expelled will find themselves instantly "transmogrified" into White people, a lot like Lot's wife who was transformed into a pillar of salt. (We witness the moment it happens to one would-be traveler.) Somehow we have bridged the distance from the opening section in which a preacher celebrates Barack Obama's election (with endless and joyous repetition of the racial epithet we White people can't use), seeing that election as an epochal change that will magically bring about an end to the social and legal disabilities Black citizens suffer - all the way to the only-slightly-in-the-future moment when compulsory expulsion of those same Black citizens would become thinkable.

The primary expositor of that moment is Peaches (Jon Hudson Odom in over-the-top hot pink and Kente cloth drag), the agent at Gate 1619 (a number whose significance we now all recognize), who, ostensibly addressing the passengers over the gate PA, fills us all in on the situation. Peaches warns everyone that this flight is the last one out, so it is vital they do whatever is necessary to get aboard. Periodically, Peaches will return to the rostrum to update us and to interact with some of the other characters.

And what an assortment of characters they are, all portrayed by members of the six-person cast, presenting a huge variety of issues in current Black discourse. There is a talk show (Red Hot Baby Mommas of the South Side), which deals with - oh, I'll never be able to list it all, but it certainly includes the posture-striking and catty style of the fashionistas and celebs who populate many such shows, the falseness and rehearsed quality of reality shows, stereotypes of Black women as endlessly fecund reproducers, Black names, and the issues posed by the Rachel Dolezals among us, White folk seeking to assume Black identities. There is a bleak sequence in which two victims of the prison industrial complex are stripped of their possessions and their dignity on the way out of incarceration and back to their families (all theoretically in order to travel back to Africa on the last flight). There is an uber-genteel Black family gathering, so intent on shedding all aspects of their racial identity that they literally cannot cope when interrupted by the emergence of an exultantly Black apparition who has been kept in the basement for 40 years, whom the family then tries repeatedly and unsuccessfully to kill, and who gradually infects the family with the very Blackness they have exerted so much effort to exorcise from their souls. There is a sequence in an abortion clinic, envisioned, in part, as a genocidal operation.

The ensemble who bring these uneasy pastiches to life are all incredibly talented -- and incredibly funny much of the time: Shannon Dorsey, Breon Arzell, Shayna Small, Brandi Porter, and LaNisa Renee Frederick. A tip of the hat to each of them.

In the end, though, it comes down to Peaches and her Bag (pictured above). I don't think we're meant to know entirely what to make of the Bag. It stands for the immeasurably large place that Black creativity has held in our country's civilization. We hear a sound collage of every kind of Black music and voice whenever the Bag is opened. Peaches means to take it with her (after tossing away a Bill Cosby album earlier placed there). But of course the Bag is so heavy it can't be moved. I won't reveal what happens next except to say that it's enigmatic, and I was relieved to see that director Brown indicates she never became comfortable or settled in her mind about what to do with it. But I felt it was right and meaningful, even if I couldn't freely translate it.

The show premiered at New York's Public Theater. This production is a joint effort of Center Stage and Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which got to present it first. A production is scheduled to come to Broadway soon, starring its author as Peaches. It should undoubtedly be quite a hit there. I hope it is here as well.

Ain't No Mo', by Jordan E. Cooper, directed by Lili-Anne Brown, through November 20 at the Head Theater, Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $20-$74 at https://cloud.broadwayworld.com/rec/ticketclick.cfm?fromlink=2207573®id=29&articlelink=https%3A%2F%2Fsecure.centerstage.org%2Fevents?utm_source=BWW2022&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=article&utm_content=bottombuybutton1 or 410-332-0033. Extreme language, mild violence.

Photo Credit: J. Fannon Photography.



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