When Jordan E. Cooper found out he was not just a Tony nominee, but a double Tony nominee, he was at his parent’s house in Texas. His parents had taken the day off and even though it was 7:30 in the morning, they watched the Tony Awards nominations announcement with him. “They’re cooking breakfast right now, just jumping up and down,” Cooper tells Playbill the morning of the announcement, joy evident in his voice.
Cooper is currently Tony-nominated for writing the play Ain't No Mo', which was on Broadway in late 2022. He also starred in the show in drag as a flight attendant named Peaches, wearing a sharp pantsuit and a long pink wig—for that, Cooper was also nominated for Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Play. And this season, Ain’t No Mo’ is one of the most-nominated plays at the 2023 Tony Awards, with six nominations (tying with Leopoldstadt and A Doll’s House).
It’s the kind of underdog story that storytellers love. Because Ain’t No Mo’, despite having Oscar-winning producer Lee Daniels on its team, closed early on Broadway in December after just 28 performances—the closing notice came less than a week after the show had opened. Come Tony season, it was the popular assumption that the play had been forgotten, as is usually the case for shows with shorter runs. But then a miracle happened.
And now Cooper himself is a double Tony nominee, remarking, “I can't be more grateful and also flabbergasted.” Cooper had been fighting for his show for a while. From its Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater in 2019, through COVID-19 to its opening on Broadway. The victory of opening his play, as the youngest Black playwright to get a Broadway production, was short-lived. A few days after opening, on December 9, it was announced that Ain’t No Mo’ would close on December 18. Then, through sheer force of will, and through social media, Cooper led a campaign that extended the show’s life by another week—it closed on December 23.
For Cooper, he remembered feeling dejected last December, like maybe Broadway was not ready for a play like his—one that was a biting satire about what if all Black people in America went back to Africa, that asked the question of how to find home in a country that is hostile to your very existence. But the Tony announcements have lit the spark of hope again for the writer. “I do feel like all is not lost,” Cooper says. “I feel like the work that we put in so hard on that stage, literally our blood and our tears and our sweat rubbed together, under the ghostlight—I'm just so incredibly grateful that it's being recognized. That work didn't go in vain.”
Ain’t No Mo’ closed around the same time as another new work on Broadway: KPOP. The latter was a musical, created by Korean-Americans and starring a mostly Asian cast. It had Helen Park, the first female Asian composer to have a work on Broadway. And yet it closed after just 17 performances. When both Ain’t No Mo’ and KPOP closed, many theatre lovers questioned whether Broadway could accept work that catered to a younger, more diverse crowd—if Broadway even knew how to market such shows. Or was the industry forever doomed to be shut off from all but the privileged few.
Cooper sees his Tony nominations and Park’s nominations (Park is now the first female Asian composer to be nominated for a Tony) as a sign that it’s worth it to keep going.
“It’s just amazing,” he marvels. “It's the lighthouse to illuminate the darkness. Like, hey, we can make this thing work. And let's move forward, let's find the path forward.” It’s also a sign for any producers out there, to give non-traditional shows a chance to find their audience. “It is a testament to how tough the time is after COVID, how tough it is to market these kinds of shows. And shows like this are deserving and just need time to find an audience.”
On Tony nomination day, Cooper is cautiously optimistic for the future of Broadway, saying that “audiences are ready for it. I think Broadway is ready, I just don't think that Broadway has the tools to sustain it just yet. And hopefully this is a sign that it's possible to sustain work like that, work that's not always comfortable.”
When asked if there will be an encore run of Ain’t No Mo’, Cooper says he’s game. He even jokes that audiences may even see his flight attendant, Peaches, at the Tony Awards. But speaking slightly more seriously, he says, “My only regret is that I'm not going to the theatre to do a show tonight.”