‘Ain’t No Mo,’ the Uproarious Satire Explodes With Brilliance on Broadway
Ain’t No Mo which premiered at The Public Theater in 2019 brings its scathing, sardonic wit and wisdom to Broadway in a broader, handsomer, electrically paced production with incredible performances and extraordinary, complex dynamism. Presented by a host of producing partners with Lee Daniels topping the list and The Public Theater end-stopping it, Jordan E. Cooper’s brilliance now can be appreciated by a wider audience. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, the production shines brightly with the creative team of Scott Pask (scenic design) Emilio Sosa (costume design) Adam Honore, who also was responsible for lighting design in the Public Theater production, Jonathan Deans and Taylor Williams (sound design) and Mia M. Neal (hair & wig design).
The tenor, structure and characterizations which send up Black cultural attitudes and systemic white institutional racism and fascism in Cooper’s excoriating farce and brash, in-your face cataclysm of vignettes, remain essentially the same as the Public’s production which I adored and thought incredibly trenchant (https://wordpress.com/posts/caroleditosti.com?s=ain%27t+no+mo). Based on the premise of the political collapse of the country with Putin installing Donald Trump as president (my opinion as per the Mueller Report) as the main conceit of the play, the government offers a one-way flight back to Africa for all Blacks.
This was a perfect trope in 2019 and still is. Though we have a different administration in the presidency, the same pernicious elements that uplift oppression and inequity refuse to submit to the constitution which safeguards Black citizens and all citizens’ rights. Indeed, since 2019 the villians are hell bent to vitiate as many of our rights as they can. So Cooper’s play is tremendously vital as a clarion call against white supremacist tyranny and despotism at the heart of Trumpism and Republicans’ silent agreement with it.
Cooper attempts a few updates in this production since 2019. He references Black Lives Matter and Vice President Kamala Harris. However, he omits references to the horrific changes in the political climate which has worsened. Nor does he reference the Biden presidency which has sought to reverse every perverse corruption the Trump presidency and Republican party in silent complicity wrought on the country. Trump’s blasphemy of democracy, the January 6th insurrection and COVID botch job (read Bob Woodward’s book Rage) where Trump wittingly exacerbated the proliferation of the virus, killing the most vulnerable communities (persons of color, the elderly) are not mentioned in this production. The updates are unnecessary because Cooper’s themes are more current than ever. In fact they are prescient and hilariously frightening.
The Trump Republicans have continued their fascism and racism with a new vengeance against the Democratic Party which appears to stand for democracy and accountability. At this writing the entire Republican Party has not raised the hue and cry necessary to condemn Trump’s association with two individuals who support white supremacy, Nazis and in particular one individual’s praise of Hitler as a Holocaust denier.
Such white supremacist oppression and outright tyranny are the key points of Ain’t No Mo which suggests truth in ridicule and doesn’t posit simplistic solutions. Cooper’s genius with Stevie Walker-Webb’s superb director’s illumination REPRESENT metaphorically. Within the high-anxiety, farcical elements of the play are the roiling currents of fear and anxiety that reveal what it is to be black in the United States today, regardless of whichever black socioeconomic class one fits into.
This is especially so after the January 6th insurrection, 1,100,000 pandemic deaths and the screaming lies of white supremacist terrorist QAnon politicos like Louis Gomer, Marjorie Taylor Green and fist pumping Josh Hawley. It is especially so as Trump acolytes whitewash violent behaviors as patriotic expressions of freedom, in a cover-up of what they actually are, crimes against humanity and an attempt to destroy the constitution and the rule of law which holds white supremacist terrorist criminals like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and their encouragers (Trump’s allies) accountable.
Thus, Cooper’s prologue set in a local black church in 2008 at a metaphoric funeral service of Brother Righttocomplain is beyond perfect. Pastor Freeman, the wonderful Marchant Davis, proclaims that the election of black president Barack Obama will save the black community and remove their need to protest injustice, inequity, police brutality and lynchings, and racial hatreds. Parishioners (Fedna Jacquet, Shannon Matesky, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry) dressed in tight white dresses, thanks to Emilio Sosa’s outrageously funny costume design, scream and shout the glory. These congregants affirm with Pastor Freeman that the “light-skinned” (an irony) Black president will solve all their problems as their very own messiah whose freeing power they “own.”
Cooper’s memes and jokes are acutely ironic and a veritable laugh riot. For example he affirms that Obama is their “ni&&er” and as such there “ain’t no mo discrimination, ain’t no mo holleration, ain’t gone be NO more haterration…” The good reverend lists an end to every conceivable example of racist terror visited upon Blacks since the Civil War because with a Black president, abuse of the Black race by an unjust government will now stop. Of course, this is an irony because learned behavior and systemic institutional racism is so complex and entrenched, everyone in the nation must work very hard to overcome it. Given the pockets of prejudice and discrimination even in blue states, this is easier said than done. Cooper illustrates this beautifully by the conclusion of the opening scene.
With the burial of Brother Righttocomplain, “Freeman” preaches “ain’t no mo strife, no more marches to be led, no more tears to be shed…” in celebration of a real “going home party.” Of course, when Pastor Freeman hears gunfire as the parishioners praise, sing and dance, reality makes its ugly appearance. With sirens, cop cars’ flashing lights and gun shots, the future descends during the Obama presidency and afterward to the annihilating Trump presidency.
Above the shouts of praise Marchand’s Freeman hears the overwhelming news reports of the Flint water crisis, deaths of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, Jordan Davis, Alton Sterling, The Charleston Nine and countless others. The reports reveal Freeman’s overestimation of Obama’s power as a Black president to mitigate racial hatreds and alleviate the social oppression Blacks experience every day. The same discrimination and violence raises its ugly head, despite President Obama’s best efforts to stop it. So the foreboding harbinger of the Trump presidency’s return to Jim Crow 2.0 terrors hover, unless blacks hop on those flights to Africa on African American Airlines. If they evacuate, they will save their lives. If they stay, they lose everything including their black identity and will end up dead or in prison.
Of course Cooper’s Africa evacuation is what President Abraham Lincoln suggested as a way to solve the “negro question” after the Civil War was over. However, Frederick Douglass stood up to Lincoln and vociferously opposed leaving because the United States was their country since 1619, and their association would never be African because their tribal history had been taken from them.
As a solution to the hell of Black America’s unequal treatment under the law, evacuation to Africa is Cooper’s over-the-top response. It is a double irony considering that once again, Blacks are introduced to a new form of dispossession, alienation, abandonment and diaspora, while the oppressive white culture “owns” all of the historical contributions Blacks have made in the arts, sciences, government, technology, industry and every field imaginable. In the play African Americans’ contributions reside metaphorically in a lovely bag which flight attendant Peaches (the inimitable Jordan E. Cooper) tries to take with her as she attempts to board the flight. But symbolically, the bag cannot be removed to Africa. And trying to leave with it, Peaches misses the flight and loses her identity and everything she’s fought for as an American. She is reduced to the state of those who survived the Middle Passage and were set up to be auctioned off as slaves. But she is “keeper” of the bag and recognizes that she is left to represent Black culture and identity.
Another key point Cooper makes with the symbolism of the “bag” is that the greatest Black contributions have been forged in the crucible of slavery and subsequent decades of oppression as Blacks and the culture have changed laws to be more equitable. Black contributions are as indelible to who Americans are as a culture and society as the Native Indian lands are the foundation upon which this nation has been built and has prospered. Though white oppression and white supremacist tyranny vaults its own greatness in lies, ignoring such contributions, it is a dangerous oversight and underestimation of Black energy, vitality and creativity. American greatness is in its diversity, and the culture and society will thrive if no one is left behind or evacuated. We must work together and seek equity for all to be great (an underlying theme of Cooper’s play).
After the opening prologue the play’s structure alternates between vignettes of various Black Americans’ response to escape to Africa and Peaches’ growing frustration boarding passengers under a deadline as an exit strategy from the hell of the coming white oppression. Cooper’s Peaches is wonderful as the wired, loud, candid, funny flight attendant who prods her passengers with the consequences of staying: prison and confiscation of everything they own or death (transmogrification). With each vignette we are apprised of the oppression Blacks have been conditioned to which is the foremost reason why Blacks should leave.
In the “Circle of Life” sequence which takes place at a clinic (since Roe vs. Wade was overturned with Dobbs, this is a particularly poignant scene) we watch the digital counter enumerate that are millions in line to terminate their pregnancies rather than give birth to a child whose days are numbered. Surely odds are they will end up as a statistic of police brutality, gang violence or other casualty of an oppressive culture which has come to kill those who drive or walk “while black.” Damien (Marchant Davis) tries to convince the pregnant Trisha (Fedna Jacquet) to keep his child rather than abort it. However, he is a spirit, shot to death, so Trisha who waits with another woman for almost two months finally goes into the room for the procedure as the plane arrives to begin boarding passengers in a humorous end of the scene as one pregnant woman thinks the plane is filled with the “9/11 bit*&es,” coming for their heads.
In a revelation of how Black identity is twisted and nullified by the culture, “The Real Baby Momas of the Southside” is a hysterical parody of any of the puerile reality series which reduce women to silly, gossipy, back-biting, angry, fools, whether black or white, as “benign” entertainment value. God forbid if this were a political show which demonstrated their intelligence and erudition. Instead, memes of what Black identity means come to the fore in this humorous and drop-dead serious send-up of shows which exploit the idea of “being Black.” Some of the funniest lines come when the women are off camera (the cameramen are white) and we discover that they don’t have children and speak without accents and epithets. We see the show is a blind to please and brainwash the audience, who enjoys seeing how “low-class” Black women are. Meanwhile, there are other ways of being, but this isn’t a show about how strong, forthright, powerful and intelligent Black women are.
“The lighter the skin, the better” is a reality Blacks have had to deal with because of white fascist physical mores. The trend has morphed over the decades into a perverse reverse. Other ethnic groups including whites have embraced the “Black ethos” in a perverse acceptance of only the superficiality of “being black” without accepting or recognizing any of the horrific sacrifices Blacks have made over their 400-year history in this nation. Cooper’s beautiful example of this appears on steroids with the character Rachonda, whose real name is Rachel (Shannon Matesky). She is a baby mama the others reject because she is white and is going through transracial treatments to become Black. When she is called out on it in a LOL moment by Tracy (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), Kendra (Fedna Jacquet) and Karen (Crystal Lucas-Perry), she reveals that she has no clue about Black American sacrifices and and just wants to ride the current wave of Black female “cool,” generated by Michelle Obama. She never receives the email inviting her to escape to Africa, caught between her memes and unconverted to her “full Blackness,” an irony.
In the last two vignettes before Cooper’s exceptional, heartfelt conclusion, the first reveals a wealthy Black family who embrace white upper class mores, genociding their own identity to convince themselves they belong to the superior, fascist, master race (like a celebrity who recently praised Hitler). By internalizing white supremacist values, they don’t even realize they have destroyed their identity, their souls and their uniqueness. Furthermore, by adopting the”white” ethos as the proud bourgeois class, they have trampled all those who have shed blood to advance the hope of achieving civil rights, equal opportunity and justice by overcoming institutional racism. The bourgeois family don’t believe they are oppressed because they live by the “green.” The supremacists would never come for them because they have money.
We don’t realize how brainwashed they are until Black (the amazing Crystal Lucas-Perry) emerges from her prison underneath the mansion where their wealthy father has chained her for forty years. Finally free, Black confronts them in one of the most wild, convulsively humorous and hyperbolic rants about their blackness and the imperative to leave for Africa. They are so “white-fascist-think,” the truth she speaks is anathema. They kill her (typical Black on Black crime). The neighbors hearing “Black” screaming non bourgeois are infuriated about it. They call the police right at the precise moment Black has been genocided.
The scene is a powder keg of dynamite performances which are memorable and tragic because the family believes that they are a different identity via the “green” (money). It doesn’t matter if they stay or go. They have already lost everything valuable about what their culture means. Staying, they lose their lives. Cooper’s theme is clear. An oppressive fascist culture has as its most horrific tactic, get blacks to destroy the finest traits about them, their Blackness, by rejecting it and internalizing white tropes. Without that Blackness, they embody the worst of the fascist “master race.” They genocide their own and themselves.
Cooper also identifies the Black, female prison population in a very powerful scene. When freedom is posited, one of the prisoners, Blue (Crystal Lucas Perry transitions to a completely different mien and aura) hesitates to leave. In great fear and rage from all the abuse of her past, she creates a situation where she almost destroys her chances for freedom and is killed (or never makes the plane and is transmogrified). How Cooper ends this vignette and the last one when Peaches doesn’t make the flight to join those evacuating the US, are memorable scenes. They leave the audience in awe. The majesty of the actors’ performances and the stark language laden with substance and richness are stunning.
It is a supreme irony that though there is not one Caucasian in his play, Cooper’s themes and messages are particularly for those who have been blinded to believe that their skin color exempts them from white supremacy’s tyranny. It is only a matter of degree. Despotism impacts everyone in the culture as Cooper indicates in the last scene of the play.
In the end scene, the jet pulls away as the Blacks leave for Africa renouncing everything to go to a safe haven, while Peaches is left “holding the bag,” though it cannot be pulled up from the very place on which it rests, having become rooted to America. Cooper’s hyperbole may seem a farcical extreme. However, what they escape in the play we all faced because of the tyranny of the former president, who weaponized of a pandemic which killed a larger proportionate number of blacks and people of color. The blasphemous white supremacist tyranny the Blacks escape via his play’s metaphor, in reality, incited an undeclared war against U.S. democracy in a violent insurrection to thwart the peaceful transfer of power when Trump lost the election. Cooper’s understanding of the murderous intent of white supremacy is divinely inspired. He is a veritable Cassandra in his ability to read the ominous signs and incorporate them in this play. So the point that the only safe haven from such white tyranny is a return to Africa has been made palpable in the Ain’t No Mo, 2022.
The work is breathtaking in its themes, performances, writing and artistry. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times go to their website https://aintnomobway.com/ You will belly laugh and be moved at the same time.
‘1776,’ The Revival Revolutionizes our Insights and Revitalizes an Appreciation for our Nation
The original Tony award-winning musical ‘1776’ with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone is for all time an exceptional distillation of events memorializing with artistic license the most salient moments of how the Declaration of Independence was eventually drafted and signed. With the force of a new and treasonous law established by a country that was first formed in the minds of an elite group of white, male land owners, the physical document was a presumptuous act of rebellion. Many disagreed with it. Those without property in the 13 colonies, i.e. women, Native Americans, slaves, white laborers and others, whose lives wouldn’t change much either with rule by propertied colonists or rule by King George III, most probably didn’t care.
In Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus’ revival of the musical 1776 at the American Airlines Theatre, the directors revolutionize the play’s casting with inclusion of those not represented in the forging of the Declaration of Independence. As a remembrance of the excluded and an indication of “how far we’ve come culturally,” the directors cast multi-racial actors who are female, nonbinary and transgender in the roles of the white, male founders normally cast in Edwards and Stone’s 1776.
Led by the “obnoxious” John Adams portrayed by the exceptional Crystal Lucas-Perry (“Sit Down John”), 1776 begins as the Second Continental Congress, after months of delay (“Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve”), finally gets down to confronting whether or not to declare independence from England’s King George III and establish America as a sovereign nation. Massachusetts delegate Adams encouraged by Dr. Benjamin Franklin (the wonderful, wry Patrena Murray) are continually rebuffed by British leaning colonists led by Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson (Carolee Carmello gives a powerful and nuanced performance as the opposition).
When it appears they are moving forward, it is suggested that approval must be unanimous, which John Handcock, President of the Congress (a commanding Liz Mikel) agrees with in order to prevent any of the colonies siding with England, incurring a civil war. Adams and Franklin join together with Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis) the recalcitrant author of a formal Declaration of Independence. The opposition continues with delays, though Franklin, Adams and Jefferson manage to pull in others as the typical manipulations of congress continue.
Washington’s difficulty with raising an army and keeping it equipped and fed is the bad news brought by the Courier (Salome B. Smith), as the Courier sings about soldiers dying on the battlefield while delegates listen with guilt and horror (Smith’s powerfully rendered “Momma, Look Sharp”). South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge (Sara Porkalob) indicts the hypocritical and self-righteous Northern colonies, reinforcing that they, too benefit from the Triangular Slave Trade (the show-stopping “Molasses to Rum”).
Infuriated, Rutledge walks out of the session and won’t return until an anti-slavery clause in the preliminary Declaration of Independence is removed. Unanimity seems far away. Yet, Adams, encouraged by wife Abigail (Allyson Kaye Daniel) throughout (“Yours, Yours, Yours”) and with the help of Franklin and Jefferson and changing results by Washington, make concessions and revisions. Finally, all agree to sign and we see their iconic signatures projected on the curtain at the conclusion.
Page and Paulus’ casting inversion ends when they cast females in the roles of Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy) and Abigail Adams (Allyson Kaye Daniel) with Daniel dressed in a colorful turban and African shift. From a positive perspective, the casting adds new interpretations and vitality, if one isn’t so well acquainted with or enamored of the original musical as to be offended with its “tampering.” Assuredly, 1776, regardless of iteration, stands on its own as a dynamic, ingenious musical.
Importantly, each unique rendering, illuminates additional perspectives. Each version should yield a new appreciation for the Founding Fathers’ humanity and blindness, which still exists today in American attitudes that have carried over for generations from a racist past that cannot be ignored by culture wars of political convenience. However, this latest 1776 outing pegged to our present generation must give pause for its daring. If one viewpoint is modified, the version has done its job. For Page and Paulus’ revival affirms that the essential concepts in the elite, propertied white men’s minds were the immutable verities of spirit that ultimately, if allowed to, transcended demographic differences to help us arrive at the expanding social and cultural contracts we have today in most of the country.
The revolutionary casting provokes humor and thoughtfulness. Interestingly, it often evokes a celebration of the success of the “American experiment.” Specifically, with a pregnant female Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis is expecting and plays the violin exquisitely) the birthing of a nation takes on an ironic and humorous meaning, especially during the song sung by Adams, Franklin and the company entitled “The Egg.” In Act II after Jefferson writes the preliminary document and Adams decides that the eagle will best symbolize the new nation, they suggest that they are like midwives to an egg hatching. During the rousing, cleverly re-imagined song, a video of the new nation’s history to come is projected on a curtain behind the actors. As the multi-cultural nation spools historical events in the future, the pregnant Elizabeth A. Davis’ Jefferson fiercely accompanies with riffs on the electric violin.
Indeed, we see what has been birthed from past to present. Our nation’s potential is amazing thanks to spiritual concepts which move beyond definition in this revelatory 1776.
The actors reveal their beautiful voices and superb acting talents during other numbers staged imaginatively. Many are standouts, however a few deserve special mention. “Momma, Look Sharp” sung by Salome B. Smith, with Tiffani Barbour and the company is a show stopper as is “Molasses to Rum” sung by Sara Porkalob. The latter song humbles the Northern colonists who participate in the Triangular Slave Trade. In pointing out the blindness of hypocrisy, the should humble everyone today who has a mobile phone, uses a laptop, wears a diamond, eats certain foods, for they have a slave footprint and participate in some for of wage slavery.
Does this new iteration work? What are the directors and actors intending to express with this revolutionary casting approach to a beloved musical? And it is beloved. One only has to read YouTube comments connected with the film version and various songs that users have uploaded, to discover that Americans trot out the filmed version of 1776 (released in 1972) occasionally. Some even claim to watch the film on July 4th to reaffirm their patriotism and appreciation of this nation with its viewing. Thus, fans of the original will perhaps bristle at this version.
However, for younger audiences, the zaniness of the production, its show-stopping numbers and the audacity of this bold cast will appeal. When at times, some of the numbers take on an irreverent, spoofy quality (“He Plays the Violin”) they will find the overall effect amusing. After all, the overarching meaning of Edwards and Stone’s musical cannot be lost, because the script and song lyrics adhere to the original. Also, there is a salient addition with Abigail’s March 1776 letter to her husband, widely quoted as a statement for women’s rights. Abigail reminds him to include women in their endeavors in her adjuration to “remember the ladies.” In spirit and irony, Page and Paulus answer Abigail’s call, devoting the entire production to female, nonbinary and transgender actors.
Thanks to choreography by Jeffrey L. Page and free flowing staging by Page and Paulus, the musical is heavily stylized and stripped of spectacle and intricate set design. One is able to concentrate and align the events and their significance to our history then and now. Costumes by Emilio Sosa intimate the setting and the respective colonists. After the principals enter wearing modern clothing, with Sosa’s magic, they cleverly turn white socks into stockings, black leggings into colonial breeches, then slip into square-toed buckle shoes of the period. Their intricate and lovely frock coats differentiate the colony each represents and reveal the varied styles of our country’s Northern, Mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies.
What Edwards and Stone’s musical did in 1969 was remind Americans of their beginnings, during a time of social upheaval and divisiveness. Then, the musical may have recalled our Founding Fathers’ desire for self-governance as the populace questioned policies that escalated an unpopular war in Viet Nam, which to many seemed hypocritical because it interfered with another nation’s right to choose its own government.
Likewise, this revival seems appropriate at a time of divisiveness and polarization. When our rights are under siege (the right to privacy under Roe vs. Wade, along with the gutting of voting rights), once again we need to be inspired toward true patriotism, taken from our Founding Fathers’ rebellion against despotic and autocratic-acting King George III. Importantly, we need to hearken back to the time when our Founders established the path toward a constitutional democracy, which forces ranging in this nation today appear to want to jettison.
Thus, the musical’s cast solidifies that the “American experiment” of a nation of liberty, accepting of all races, creeds, genders, colors is burgeoning, even though in some places this version might not fall coherently and seamlessly in every moment of the production. The revolutionary cast concept cannot be easily dismissed. Nor can this version be glibly criticized for confusing history or the ideas.
If one reads extensively of the time during the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers, it is clear that great artistic liberty was taken by Edwards and Stone to dramatize the Declaration’s signing in 1776. For example there are inaccuracies in the character of Adams who describes himself as obnoxious as the others concur in the expertly staged and performed opening number that establishes conflict. The description of “obnoxious” is contrary to what David McCullough suggests in his biography of Adams, who was well respected by his compatriots.
The historical inaccuracies are in the service of dramatization. Likewise, the casting of this version is historically inaccurate. However, as a musical for our time and nation, whose democracy appears to be hanging in the balance, it is extremely relevant and in keeping with the immutable spirit of freedom. Whether fans of the original will like it, hopefully, will not deter from their understanding of how the original and this present version are in concert with the nature and substance of a “declaration of independence.”
Kudos to Scott Pask’s fine set design, Jen Shriever’s lighting design, David Bengali’s projection design, John Clancy’s orchestrations Ryan Cantwell’s music direction, AnnMarie’s vocal design, Dean Sharenow-music coordinator and the other creatives who helped to bring this version to life. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/1776/
‘A Bright Room Called Day’ at The Public, Tony Kushner’s Haunting Spectres Thread Through Hitler’s Berlin, Reagan’s 1980s and Trumpism
Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day directed by Oskar Eustis, currently at The Public until 15 December (unless it receives another extension which it should), reflects upon humanity confronting evil that on a number of levels appears unstoppable and irrevocable. Throughout the main action and play within a play, Kushner makes clear that those who recognize evil’s force and preeminence, often are too afraid to lay down their lives to fight, though fighting is the action needed to stop wickedness in political, social and economic institutions not constrained by the rule of law.
The play uses at is jumping off point political and social issues undermining the Weimar Republic in Berlin. The setting encompasses events one year prior to the “Eve of Destruction,” when Hindenburg acceded to Hitler’s government take-over after which Hitler evicted parliamentary, constitutional democracy from the minds, hearts and souls of the German people. Kushner examines the parallels of that time with our culture during Reaganism and Trumpism.
The questions he raises are pointed. Some might argue that from the 1980s to now, the decline in our democratic processes and the public’s response appear similar to the public’s response to precursor events in Germany 1933. A Bright Room Called Day relates Berlin, Germany 1933 to 1985 Reaganism, devolving to the time of Trump. These three settings represent a turning point when the crisis of the period might have shifted in another direction if good citizens acted differently, affirming the adage, “evil flourishes when good men and women do nothing.” In this play Kushner examines the “What if?” Couldn’t citizens have halted the terrifying dissolution of democracy? Couldn’t they have liquidated Hitler’s fascist dictatorship before he even attempted to manifest his warped vision of the Third Reich’s reign for 1000 years?
The community of individuals we meet at the outset of the play who pop in and out of Agnes Eggling’s (Nikki M. James) lovely apartment are members of the political, liberal left, a combination of artists and activists who are/were at one point communists, socialists, progressives and union activists, one of whom is a homosexual (played by the exquisite, always present Michael Urie). All of these will be consigned to Hitler’s enemies’ list if they remain in Berlin. If captured, they will be deported as state enemies and undesirables and murdered when Hitler constructs and augments his network of slave labor and extermination camps to implement his “Final Solution.”
Kushner’s work which was excoriated when it first premiered in the 1980s has been given an uplift with an additional character, and dialogue tweaking to reference the current siege of Trumpism on our democracy. Kushner posits that our times manifest “inklings” similar to those employed by fascists and Reagan’s corrupt conservatives who sent the nation on a downhill slide which Trump appears to be pitching over the edge into oblivion, unless we do something. By drawing comparisons, we are forced to reflect upon the upheaval in our democratic institutions as the political, economic and social divisiveness spurred by Trumpism augments.
Kushner interjects his own commentary as a playwright and interrupts the action during which he actively engages his audience as a silent character whose consciousness he manipulates. Through identification with the people and events in Germany, we, like they, become like the frog that is placed in a pot of cold water. As the heat is turned up to the boiling point, if the frog is alert, he can escape before boiling to death. But he must realize immediately what is happening, so he will not be too lamed to escape. By degrees the audience realizes that they are in a crucible like Kushner’s characters, under which a fiery truth blazes. To that truth Kushner posits, one must recognize it, or its heat and pressure will pitch one into a death-state of paralysis like Agnes’.
The play’s new character is Xillah. Xillah represents Kushner’s perspectives as a citizen playwright who comments on his play and the policies of Reaganism and Trumpism. Playwright Xillah engages with Zillah his indefinable character whom he’s written into the 1980s. Zillah complains to Xillah about her function in the play. She importunes him for a viable role and purpose. She wishes to step beyond ranting about the emotional paralysis of character Agnes. Watching Agnes frustrates Zillah, for Agnes does little but quiver in fear at the ever-worsening events in Berlin. It is her fears which manifest nightmare presences (Die Älte-the Old One, in a wonderful portrayal by Estelle Parsons) who haunt her and drive her into soul paralysis which will lead to her death under Hitler’s regime.
Xillah, a character in the play framing the Berlin events is portrayed with humorous vitality by Jonathan Hadary. His character criticizes the activities by the cults of Reagan and Trump. He sardonically characterizes Reagan’s presidency and Trump’s “monolithic” personage with abandon in a stream of hysterical epithets that are right-on. Both Xillah and Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry is Hadary’s counterpart in a feeling portrayal) comment on the dynamic of the Berlin characters which Xillah (as Kushner) has created. They watch as Agnes, Paulinka (the superb Grace Gummer) Baz ( Michael Urie) Husz (Michael Esper) Gotchling (Linda Emond) and comrades Rosa Malek (Nadine Malouf) and Emil Traum (Max Woertendyke) grow morose and desperate, experiencing the dissolution of the German Republic into fascism. They palpably encounter the manifested evil of the time in the form of Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis humorously intrigues in his portrayal). He is the Devil, whose darkness overtakes Germany as Hitler ushers himself into the government and eradicates any goodness that went before.
Kushner’s characters argue about communism, socialism, democratic socialism and the state of affairs. Their discussions fuel their waning activism and encourage impassivity with a few exceptions, for example, Gotchling (Linda Emond), who is continually putting up posters which are torn down continually. We empathize with the Berliners as they react to the brutalities and street fighting, Hindenberg’s ending the government and the Reichstag fire which Hitler blamed on the communists to ban the party, arrest the leaders (his enemies), and consolidate his power base.
The characters react emotionally with disgust and outrage but their impulses to act are largely stymied by fear. They will not move beyond marches and protests that the Brown Shirts help to render bloody and ineffective. And when back room deals are made to put Hitler in power, they become powerless. Like many they appear to believe the propaganda rallies that show support for Hitler, though initially these are largely staged until the rallies gain in momentum and many join Hitler’s party.
The historical events are chronicled with vitality. The characters reveal poignant moments expressing the mood and tenor of the like-minded populace. Baz relates a story of a man’s suicide and his imagined wish to take one of the oranges, he, Baz, has purchased and give it to the dead man as a comfort. Of course, Baz never gives him the orange, but he imagines having done it, ironically comforting himself as the man is beyond being comforted. For Baz it is a horror seeing the dead man’s body pooling blood around it. Baz identifies the cause of the man’s suicide as the despair and immobility to stop the terrible events in Berlin. The suicide rocks Baz to the core. We align the man’s suicide with Baz’s suicide attempt which he stops himself from committing when instead, he has a sexual encounter. Baz’s choice is ironic and the impact of the suicide he witnessed in the streets is nullified by sexual distraction. As Baz, Urie delivers another incredible story later on which sets one reeling. Again, when Baz could take a stand, he chooses not to. Throughout, Urie’s performance is spot on amazing.
In the “intervening” frame play, Zillah attempts to persuade Xillah to write her with character powers that transcend time and space and go back to the past to warn Agnes of the danger of embracing fear and doing nothing. Zillah is upset that Agnes is so overcome, she is zombie-like. One of the humorous parallels is that Xillah, too, is at an impasse (like Agnes) only it is about the direction of this play and how to make it more vital so that it will have a resounding impact on the audience and get them to act. But he is filled with doubts about the function of plays. Also, he fears tampering with what he has already written. Indeed, he could make his play into a worse failure. His quandary is humorous.
Kushner, the frame (the present and 1980s) around which houses his Berlin character dynamic has Xillah remind Zillah of a number of important details, in addition to the chronological events of Hitler’s takeover. As Xillah parallels the then with the now, he affirms that friends living against the backdrop of Trumpism suggested he revisit The Bright Room Called Day because it is prescient and current. Xillah wrangles how best to show the similarities and complains that the characterization of Zillah doesn’t work. However, the character very much integrates the parallels. She criticizes inaction when a nation’s political/social structure disintegrates because the populace becomes overwhelmed and doesn’t act, becoming paralyzed as Agnes is paralyzed. The question remains: how does one move out of paralysis and take effective action which will change things for the better?
The threads of alignment that Kushner makes with Germany that mirror our present are thematically chilling. Xillah reminds Zillah that the Weimar Republic had a constitution like the U.S. but their constitution didn’t save them against Hitler who abolished it. With the constitution gone, Hitler and his underlings and judiciary created laws to further Hitler’s occult mythic vision (the Master Race). And with his own race laws, he legalized the genocide of millions. Of course, Kushner highlights the turning point when death and destruction could have been prevented during the events of 1932-33. But those who saw, like Agnes and her friends, chose to do nothing. Eventually, like the frog slow boiled in the pot, the only thing they can do is escape. If they, as Agnes did, stay, they will be killed or swallowed up like Paulinka to join Hitler’s Third Reich “support group” of murderous maniacal, psychotic, evil accomplices. A different type of death, certainly more horrific and self-recriminating.
Xillah muses about changing the play and warns Zillah that Agnes can’t hear her: she is dead as the past is dead. Zillah continues to beg Xillah. The dialogue that Kushner has written between them is humorous and reminiscent of the “Theater of the Absurd” genre and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, where the playwrights tweak dramatic conventions. This is done to expand audience consciousness. Such creative license demands being available to “thinking outside of the box.” It also leads to the audience having to follow a play’s absurdities which can be as confounding as the illogical, dire thrusts of fascism, Reaganism, Trumpism.
The absurdist feeling becomes that one has been caught up watching oneself as a part of the larger picture which one deludes themselves into believing they can control. In fact the “author” of our lives is not one we’ve necessarily chosen or know. At least Zillah knows her progenitor and argues with him and finally convinces Xillah to lift space/time constraints so that Agnes hears and speaks to her.
This section gives rise to a number of themes in this work that is dense with brilliance. Before Zillah connects with Agnes, we note that Agnes’s spirit atrophies and dies because her fear incapacitates her. Even if Zillah could break through the time barrier and move from the 1980s to 1933, Agnes’s routine of embracing fear and inaction has warped and destroyed any life in her. Life is movement, action, vitality. Doing something, anything (even escaping) would be better than just withering away. The irony of the play is the melding of the frame play into the Berlin story by Kushner/Xillah. He finally allows Zillah to warn Agnes to leave because she is doomed. Though it is not mentioned, we understand that those who did leave Germany early on did manage to save themselves while millions were swept up in genocide and Hitler’s war machine.
Agnes’ reply to Zillah is not what we expect. It is mind-numbing, a warning to Zillah and us about our own time. It has the effect of a final incredible bomb blast that whimpers and fades. The full-on irony is as Agnes exhorts her/us, we hear, but it doesn’t register, it doesn’t matter. Thematically, Kushner suggests that we are plagued by the same inabilities, insufficiencies and cowardice that Husz ranted about in an earlier magnificent scene. Time inevitably doesn’t matter as we are like Agnes. Paralyzed, immobilized by discussion doing little to save ourselves. We must act! But how? To do what? And so it goes.
Kushner’s play should be revisted and it is a credit to The Public and Oskar Eustis for bringing it back in this unsettling, frustrating iteration. The parallels with each time period, whether we deign to acknowledge them or not, are striking. The threads which indict us about our alienation and powerlessness are spectres which should prick us to the marrow of our bones.
Indeed, in our time as we watch the separation of powers (executive, legislative, judiciary) illegally devoured by the Trumpist Party with the DOJ stomping down its own institution (i.e. the Inspector General’s Report exonerating FBI officials whom the WH has slandered and insulted) and mischaracterizing the Mueller Report, such “above the law conduct” to loyally support the WH is frightening and dangerous. Additionally, in our time, we note how the Trumpist Party encourages law breaking of fired officials (lawyers and others) to defy congressional subpoenas tantamount to obstruction of justice. And currently, high ranking members of the Trumpist Party in the House of Representatives refuse to listen to non partisan congressional testimony which implicates the White House in potential bribery of a foreign leader, withholding appropriate congressional military aid in exchange for a political smear of the White House’s opponent. In other words, they refuse to uphold their constitutional oath of office and do their job, instead uplifting the “dear” leader’s loyalty pledge to support him in his criminality.
These are high crimes and misdemeanors to add to a long list of acts which we need whistleblowers to come out and speak about: Trumpist bribery of foreign leaders, quid pro quos, his acting above the law, his incurring human rights violations, overthrowing military law, and Trump’s blatant importuning of foreign nations and adversaries to help him overthrow our election processes with smear campaigns against his opponents, the indefensible practice he used to win the 2016 election.
Such lawless behavior in an executive that easily vitiates the separation of powers, and bullies, insults and retaliates against anyone who would attempt to point out his law violations recalls behaviors of fledgling dictatorships. Such dictatorships grow. They make laws into what are solely “good” for the dictator/autocrat as they obviate what is good for the rest of the body politic. And if one counters with opposition? That autocrat will bully, intimidate, censure, retaliate and eventually when no one stops them, kill or destroy any opponents using what it can get away with, first character assassination, then jail, then well placed convenient suicides (check the google article about Deustche Bank’s suicides) then murder.
One may argue that Kushner’s alignment of the present U.S. “leadership” with Germany’s situation in 1932-33 is extreme and overblown. Really? And indeed, if the play “doesn’t work,” are the themes and presentments just too horrible to contemplate? Are we, like Agnes, too overcome, too PTSDed by the WH’s horrific acts to consider that we have already lost our constitution and democracy to an overweening, unlawful executive branch whose party refuses to adhere to constitutional checks and balances?
Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day raises so many parallels, similar threads and questions, that it should be seen. It should be seen not only for the superb performances, but for the humor, for the pith, the juicy pulp of the orange that is being offered as a comfort. And it should be seen as the bright bit of light in the sky before the darkness closes in and we can no longer see clearly fact from fiction. While there is that bit of light, we must discern conflicting alternative narratives from the propaganda that would occlude our minds, souls and hearts and propel us away from human decency and love for each other as citizens of a nation worthy of its ideals.
Kudos to David Rockwell (scenic design) Susan Hilferty and Sarita Fellows (co-costume design) John Torres (lighting design) BRay Poor (sound design) Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) Tom Watson (hair, wig, makeup design) Thomas Shall (fight director). A Bright Room Called Day runs with one intermission at The Public Theater until 15 of December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘Ain’t No Mo,’ A Searing, Edgy, Sardonic, Magnificent Production at The Public
Aint’ No Mo by Jordan E. Cooper directed by Stevie Walker-Webb is the most cutting edge, maverick and sterling production I’ve seen this year at The Public Theater. It is a must-see for its hysterical humor, black satire, superb “over-the-top” performances and jaw-dropping, brilliant writing by the playwright whom I cannot praise enough for his startling wake-up call to citizens in this nation that faces, a constitutional crisis.
Cooper with the assistance of the sharp direction and lightening, comedic pacing of Stevie Walker-Webb who shepherds the electric, moment-to moment actors, lays bare themes about black Americans attempting to survive in the medium of white oppression, a condition which began when the first slave ship in 1619 offloaded its precious cargo to the lands we now refer to as the United States. Through vignettes exemplifying black characters who REPRESENT a variety of socio-economic and cultural identities that make up black American society today, Cooper, Walker-Webb and the versatile actors portray the alienation, dislocation and terrorization black individuals confront daily based on the color of their skin because of institutionalized racism, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Though the playwright satirizes black culture and the sardonic humor is exceptional, underlying all of the vignettes is the ubiquity of a fascist system that destroys or chips away through incipient attenuation black citizens’ rights, freedoms, talents, hopes, legacies and praise for black contributions to the goodness of our society. The cultural blessings of black identity reside in every area one can think of; they are an indelible part of our society and culture’s music, scientific research, dance, inventive creations and much more. But why are blacks still facing record incarceration, economic injustice, legal injustice, housing discrimination, job discrimination, educational discrimination, killings by racist law enforcement who are not held accountable and more?
These inequalities born of white, male, privilege fascism, citizens must take to heart and understand regardless of skin color, especially if one is not black. Indeed, black American treatment in the culture serves to note the health of the society. It is like the canary in the coal mine. For a time around the decades up to the turn of the 20th century, it looked like maybe the canary was breathing. When Obama became president, the canary seemed stronger. But things didn’t turn out as expected. And now, the canary is croaking out its death song.
Cooper’s play exemplifies this with incredible power. It is a warning for all in the culture that we are very sick and it is especially egregious for black Americans. Those ethnicities who have their eyes open (not the KKK, the white supremacists, racist law enforcement, neo Nazis, the Trumpist administration and supporters, the Federalist Society and ultra-right wing think tanks who use race to divide and scoop up political power) are subject in a different way to the fascism that rides roughshod over black Americans.
Where fascist controllers are concerned, they will divide and conquer through racial hatreds so that ultimately all suffer under a horrible cultural-economic ethos where suffering becomes a matter of degree. And blacks are sacrificed in a blood letting that makes all guilty, unless they work fervently to stop it.
The greatness of this production which has not one “white” (an irony in itself since many “whites” don’t know their own racial history which includes African-American blood) person in it, concerns black perspectives about having to “get along” and survive in a “white privilege” culture. In effect, black Americans don’t “get along” very well (an understatement). And after the Obama administration ended in a hellishness for black Americans, the Trump election and current white supremacist administration has given rise to another holocaust.
With the empowerment of the KKK and white supremacy under Trump, where do blacks stand? Should they leave a country which has in some states reverted to voting violations reminiscent of the Jim Crow South? The question pervades this amazing and thought-provoking production from its powerful beginning to its riveting ending.
The production begins in a black church on the eve of the election of President Obama in 2008 during the funeral for Brother Righttocomplain. The Pastor leads the hopeful to believe that under Obama, a black president, finally things will begin to improve, and there will be “No Mo” of the oppression, killing and racial-based institutional abuse blacks have experienced.
However, at the end of the church service, we hear gunshots and see flashing red lights symbolizing more cops stopping blacks and killing them unjustly. And we hear in a voice over some of the black abuses that happened during Obama’s presidency, i.e. the Flint Water Crisis, the deaths of Travon Martin, Sandra Bland and scores of others. The unjust murders of many blacks at the hands of law enforcement continue. Obama did what he could but the death and destruction of black people and black identity in various forms is “alive and well.”
Cooper then steps into the future. The horror of Trump’s election has resulted in an evacuation of all blacks in the US. Peaches (a wonderful job by Cooper) is a flight attendant on African American airlines and she is responsible for checking in passengers on the flights to African countries for free; it is a form of reparations. Blacks must leave and give up all they have known here, or they will be transmogriphied into whites. All traces of their blackness, culture, identity will be obliterated and they will have to start anew in Africa. Cooper establishes the play’s development with three Peaches’ segments during which thousands of blacks are checked onto their flights so that there will be no blacks left in America.
In between the flights taking off, Cooper relays vignettes of various black individuals being confronted with the decision of staying and losing their black ethos or leaving. In the “Circle of Life” vignette, hundreds of black women line up for abortions; they would rather kill their children then see them in prison or “die while black” at the hands of law enforcement in the US. How Cooper dramatizes this (NO SPOILER ALERT HERE) is superb. However, the news of the eviction letter is just being received for these women They will have to make their decision quickly because the planes are leaving.
In the next vignette, a reality show entitled “Real Baby Mamas of the South-Side,” Cooper confronts the memes of what black identity means. It is a humorous and drop-dead serious send-up of black reality shows which exploit the idea of “being black” from a profit-motive angle.
During this segment as he does with others, the playwright touches upon many examples of oppressive destruction of black identity and the internalization of the destruction as blacks attack themselves and each other’s confidence in their “blackness.”
For example nullification of black identity exists through excoriation of the darkness of one’s skin color and the naturalness of one’s hair. “The lighter the skin, the better” is a reality blacks have had to deal with because of white fascist physical mores. The trend has morphed over the decades into a perverse reverse. Other ethnic groups including whites have embraced the “black ethos” in a perverse acceptance of only the superficiality of “being black” without realizing any of the horrific sacrifices blacks have made over their 400-year history in this nation.
Cooper takes this notion and puts it on steroids during the hysterical, satiric “Real Baby Mamas of the South-Side.” One of the characters (Rachonda-her real name is Rachel) is going through transracial treatments to become black. When she is called out on it by Tracy, Kendra and Karen, she reveals that she has no clue about black American sacrifices and and just wants to ride the current wave of black female “cool” generated by Michelle Obama.
This becomes so obnoxious and Rachonda so overweening in exrpessing the “right” to be who she wants, the hypocrisy for the real black women is overwhelming. All fight, a boon for reality TV’s exploitation. The attack on each other is symbolic. It is a tragic outcome of internalizing the “whiter is better” cultural mores turned on its head. We are ironically reminded how divide and conquer is a tactic of the dominant, white, privilege culture.
Interestingly, the real black women leave to join the thousands who are evacuating to Africa. Of course Rachel (who is white) never gets the notification to evacuate. The irony is that in attempting to become transracial she will never be black “cool.”
In the remaining vignettes, Cooper reveals a wealthy bourgeois black family who is covering over their black identity symbolized by the character “Black” (dressed like a slave) who their father kept in the basement out of fear. Because he dared to have his own business, the KKK nearly lynched their father. As a result, he suppressed his “blackness” and assimilated/internalized white cultural mores while suppressing his “blackness” by chaining up Black in the basement (psychological suppression).
It is an incredible vignette, both sardonic and sober in its revelation that to survive, blacks have internalized white cultural values to their own destruction. By adopting the”white” ethos by being the proud bourgeois class (nullifying their real selves/souls) they have trampled all those who have shed blood to advance the hope of achieving civil rights, equal opportunity and justice overcoming institutional racism.
As the family attempts to have an elegant dinner and discuss whether to go to Africa, Black comes up from the basement bursting on the scene. Black, representing everything about the family’s identity that they wish to eradicate (having internalized the white supremacy values) is a horror to them. They end up killing Black themselves for they do not want to be associated with being black. They have wealth and status and live in a white neighborhood; they are deluded they have made it in the oppressive culture that has destroyed their being.
Indeed, the theme is clear. An oppressive fascist culture has as its most horrific tactic: get blacks to destroy the finest traits about them, their blackness. Without that blackness, they embody the worst of the fascist “master race.” They genocide their own and themselves..
Cooper also identifies the black, female prison population in a very powerful scene. When freedom is posited, one of the prisoners, Blue, in great fear and rage from all the abuse of her past nearly creates a situation where she messes up her chances for freedom and is killed (or never makes the plane and is transmogrified). How Cooper ends this vignette and the last one when Peaches also goes to join those evacuating the US, are memorable scenes. They leave the audience in complete shock.
This superb production is a crucifying indictment of the nullification/annihilation of black Americans through identity confusion and racist oppression via various institutions in the United States. It is even more prevalent today under Trumpism in its blatant constitutional violations, gerrymandering, lies, destroying ballots and Trump’s sanctioning of the Russians helping elect him. (He denies this still, though the Mueller Report evidence proves the Russians meddled and then that Trump covered it up and obstructed justice). All of these segments hit the bulls-eye with mind-blowing truthfulness that makes one laugh and cry at the same time.
The themes are unmistakable. The sub rosa genocide of black Americans will continue unless we work together to stop it. Regardless, black Americans have made magnificent contributions and are the backbone of our progress. No one culture and class should dominate; that is the greatest myth and whether or not whites acknowledge that this is a lie, nevertheless, is a lie. The truth is apparent.
Sadly, if black women question having children because they fear giving them up to shootings and jail terms, then where is the hope? Are the strides taken up to this point in time hope-filled enough to continue in the face of the new fascism and white supremacy that is just plain in your face and denies that it is in your face? The play raises these questions for us to consider and answer with advocacy and action.
This marvelous production is an experience. Above all it is a reminder that we are together in this culture, striving to prosper. If we don’t work for all of us, then we can’t work for any of us. This is especially so against an administration that only bows to its own agenda and money men.
Praise go to these actors: Fedna Jacquet, Marchant Davis, Simone Recasner, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry and Jordan E. Cooper as Peaches. Kudos go to Kimie Nishikawa (Scenic Design), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Design) Adam Honore (Lighting Design) (Emily Auciello (Sound Design) Cookie Jordan (Hair, Wig, Makeup Design).
Ain’t No Mo runs with no intermission until 5 May. Don’t miss this incredible, “in-your-face” production. You will be glad you saw something as novel and profound and wonderfully performed as you will see. There is NOTHING like it around! For tickets go to the website by CLICKING HERE.