It's the most ominous airplane since Rod Serling put his teleplay "How to Serve Man" on "The Twilight Zone" in 1962. The airplane in question is the amazing work of set designer Kimie Nishikawa and it's the centerpiece of Jordan E. Cooper's equally amazing new play, "Ain't No Mo'," which opened Wednesday at the Public Theater. Okay, the airplane in "How to Serve Man" is really a spaceship, but then "Ain't No Mo' takes us on a far more disturbing trip.
Cooper connects a number of comic vignettes to an e-mail blast from the U.S. government that gives all black citizens a free one-way ticket to Africa. Latinos are on a wait list in case there are any African Americans who can't or won't make the trip. But it's an offer, like the Godfather's, that no one can refuse. Barack Obama is pilot, and an airline employee named Peaches gives instructions at the gate as she zaps tickets and says, "Have a nice flight!" She repeatedly cautions passengers not to look back at America, or else risk being subjected to very Old Testament treatment. Of course, somebody looks back.
Cooper plays Peaches, complete with pink hair and matching sequin suit out of RuPaul's closet, and she is a force to fear. Whites aren't to be found anywhere near her station at the airport, and so Peaches is free to let go on what's right and what's wrong with her people in vivid, expletive-laden detail. Peaches is every apparatchik you've had to tolerate for that minute or two that a certain assistant/TSA agent/voice on the phone/maitre d' is in control of your life.
Interspersed with these Peaches-at-the-airport moments are seemingly unrelated scenes set in a jail, a family dining room, a "Real Housewives"-style televised reunion and a funeral. It's the funeral that comes first, because the presidential election that day of Barack Obama signals the death of the man called Righttocomplain. Marchant Davis plays the reverend and his eulogy for Rightttcomplain may set a new record for the utterance of the N-word in any time frame.
Davis also blows the roof off the Public's tiny LuEsther Theater before the hope of that election collapses into a socio-political apocalypse that's effectively visualized in Nishikawa's set, Adam Honore's lighting and Emily Auciello's explosive sound design. After this gotterdammerung, it's no wonder Peach's station at the airport gate is jam-packed. Nishikawa's set alone induces severe agoraphobia, with that huge airplane looming ominously outside the window.
Repeatedly, Cooper's writing delivers sustained absurdist comedy that comes crashing down at scene's end, only to pick back up again for yet another wild ride through bigoted modernAmerica.
This young playwright's satire takes no prisoners. The new gender vocabulary gets a send-up in the "Real Housewives" reunion when one white woman, born Rachel but now calling herself Rachonda (the ferocious Simone Recasner), claims to be "transracial," has the hair if not the skin to prove it, and gets into a fight with the black women (Fedna Jacquet, Ebony Marshall-Oliver and Crystal Lucas-Perry, being equally fierce) who think she had a "choice" in her transformation.
Recasner's transracial woman is a first in the theater, and no actor will be able ever to erase Rachonda's first defiant, proud, self-pitying footsteps. Davis returns in this vignette to parody an Andy Cohen who turns his gayness on and off at will, and dares to wear black mesh on-camera. Kudos to Montana Levi Blanco's outrageous costumes and Cookie Jordan's equally over-the-top hair, wigs and makeup.
Later in "Ain't No Mo'," a wealthy black family finds its dinner interrupted when the long-held captive in their basement escapes to torment them. Lucas-Perry's impersonation of "blackness" embodies everything this family doesn't want to admit about its status in the United States. And once again, Cooper runs the gamut, from the outlandishly ridiculous to the grimly irrational.
Stevie Walker-Webb's direction makes repeated and awesome leaps, but he and Cooper are equally good at depicting life in between the extremes. A widow (Jacquet) saying goodbye to the ghost of her murdered husband (Davis) and the release of two prisoners (Jacquet and Lucas-Perry) from jail are moments that deliver a grounding pathos.
These two pivotal scenes have their fantastical elements too, but the outrage regarding a country gone wrong feels rawest here. And Cooper suddenly whips out that cushion of comedy from under us. Some wounds aren't supposed to heal.