How Bootlegs Got Jordan E. Cooper Into Theatre | Playbill

Special Features How Bootlegs Got Jordan E. Cooper Into Theatre

Plus, the Ain't No Mo' playwright explains how he stays optimistic in dark times: laughter and Sondheim.

Jordan E. Cooper Heather Gershonowitz

One night in 2016, Jordan E. Cooper decided to treat himself to a Slurpee. He walked into a 7/11 on 14th Street in Manhattan. Next to the Slurpee machine was a cop. And as Cooper reached up to the nozzle of the Slurpee machine, the cop put his hand on his gun, fastened in a holster at his belt. Recalls Cooper, “I put my hands up and he just kind of nodded and continued what he was doing.” That was the same week that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were shot by the police, despite being unarmed. And in that moment, Cooper was afraid he was going to become another statistic. “I remember going back to my room and just thinking, I could have gotten killed over $1.46 Slurpee,” he recalls, before adding, as if to cut the tension, “And it ain't even that good!”

Shaken by that encounter, Cooper went back to his dorm room at the School of Drama at The New School and began writing a play. That play became Ain't No Mo', which is currently running on Broadway after receiving unanimously rave reviews. It’s Cooper’s Broadway debut, both as a playwright and as a performer (he stars in Ain’t No Mo’, as well). At 27, Cooper is the youngest Black playwright to have a play on Broadway. In short, it’s been a wild journey from writing a play in his dorm room, thinking nobody “would ever produce it,” says Cooper. “It literally was just me unapologetically pouring myself onto the page, in a way that I wasn't sure if other people would get it.”

Ain’t No Mo’ began for Cooper with an hyperbolic question: “What if we all just got the hell up out of here? What if we all just said, ‘Deuces,’ and went back to Africa?” That became the underlying concept of Ain’t No Mo’, which is a series of sketches revolving around what happens if the American government offered African Americans a one-way ticket back to Africa (a concept that has some basis in reality, such as Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa Movement). The sketches in Ain’t No Mo’ follow different Black people reacting to the news, such as Black churchgoers at a service, a poor Black woman about to get an abortion at an abortion clinic, Black people about to be released from prison, and a wealthy Black family. In between, a Black flight attendant named Peaches (a drag queen, played by Cooper) is helping people board the last plane out.

These different scenarios allow Cooper to tackle a bevy of themes: anti-Blackness within the Black community, the commodification of Blackness within entertainment, the prison industrial complex, wealth disparity within the Black community, abortion. And crucially, when the country you live in actively works to keep you subjugated, what does home look like? It’s a lot. And yet, Ain’t No Mo’ doesn’t feel overstuffed. In each of its sketches, Ain’t No Mo’ packs a potent punch, making the audiences laugh and murmur in equal measures. 

“The culture needs a wake-up call about where we are with race,” says Oscar winner Lee Daniels, who as the lead producer of Ain’t No Mo’ is also making his producing debut on Broadway. “Not just Black people, white people, Asian people, etc. I think America needs a real shakedown when we look at the origin of how we started in America, and what America is about.” He then adds, with confidence, “I think Jordan Cooper does that with the play.”

Lee Daniels Heather Gershonowitz

Cooper took some inspiration from Tony winner George C. Woolfe’s The Colored Museum, which was also a series of sketches about Black identity (and there was even a character that was a flight attendant). But similar to The Colored Museum, Cooper’s play also has an absurdist bent, leaning just as hard into comedy as it does into the bracing social critique.

To Cooper, that is very much his aesthetic: “My way of getting through the pain is usually to find some sort of laughter, find some sort of light through the tunnel.”

And Peaches, which is an amalgamation of Lucille Ball and Whitney Houston (with a dash of Momma Rose from Gypsy), was a way for Cooper to address homophobia in the Black community. “I started thinking about the interesting relationship between queerness and Blackness and how they usually are at war with each other,” he says. “I really wanted to know what would happen if Black people had to depend on a queer being. Because I feel like a lot of our [queer] ancestors…were kind of either brushed over, or ignored and not celebrated.”

That melding of genres, and that almost too-much-ness, was why Daniels wanted to bring Ain’t No Mo’ to Broadway. He first saw the play in 2019 when it ran Off Broadway at the Public Theater. He left the theatre being thoroughly blown away. “I'd never seen anything like it in my life,” he enthuses. “It reminded me of my early work. It reminded me of why it was that I do what it is that I do: It was political. It had a message. It was about race. And it was provocative.”

Daniels was so impressed by Ain’t No Mo’ that he hired the then-24-year-old Cooper to be the show-runner on The Ms. Pat Show, a family sitcom on BET. And Daniels so believes in Cooper that he spearheaded Ain’t No Mo’s transfer to Broadway, admitting: “I feel so passionately about this play that I've thrown caution to the wind.” He’s also called in a few of his celebrity friends to come support the show: Queen Latifah and NeNe Leakes were in the audience for its first preview performance (Latifah even danced during a rambunctious portion of the show). Lena Waithe, Gabrielle Union, and Dwyane Wade have signed on as producers.

“I think that has the possibility to change Broadway,” says Daniels. “I've never experienced Broadway like this before. When I'm on Broadway, for the most part, I'm the only Black person in the theatre.” But not with Ain’t No Mo’, “This feels like I am not on Broadway. This feels like I'm at home.”

The show’s creative team, helmed by director Stevie Walker-Webb, have been hard at work making sure the audience at Ain’t No Mo’ is diverse, so that the cultural references and the slang are received and understood. The average ticket prices for the show have been $50. “I've spoken to so many people where this is their first Broadway play,” says Cooper. “I'm just so grateful that people have been coming in and feeling seen, with language that they don't always have to reach for.”

As Cooper says in the pre-show announcement for Ain’t No Mo’, “This is your church. And for those of you who are quiet, obedient and unresponsive in your church, consider this your Black church.”

Jordan E. Cooper, Lee Daniels, and Stevie Walker-Webb Heather Gershonowitz

It’s fitting because Ain’t No Mo’ is a product of Cooper’s upbringing. Growing up in Hurst, Texas, the first play he ever saw was a bootleg copy of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion (which was later turned into a film). That led him to other plays from the Urban Theatre Circuit, known colloquially as the Chitlin’ Circuit—a byproduct of segregation when Black people could only perform and frequent certain venues. It was where Aretha Franklin and Perry made their debuts as artists.

Ain’t No Mo’, with its irreverent humor and unapologetic exploration of identity, is Cooper's way of bringing that Black theatre tradition to Broadway. “When we think of American theatre, we think of Neil Simon, we think of August Wilson,” he explains. “But to me, the Chitlin’ Circuit is so magnificent, because it's literally a form of theatre that's written outside of whiteness—I feel like the traditional American theatre is just naturally done for [white people] because that's who usually buys the tickets.” In contrast, plays within the Chitlin’ Circuit are “unorthodox,” says Cooper, “I think the unorthodox-ness is really just leaving space for the Spirit and not writing to any kind of respectability politics, or to be admired or to be understood. It's literally just writing out of feeling.”

The Chitlin’ Circuit also led Cooper to more mainstream works, such as Rent and Wicked. Cooper became such a “Broadway baby” that he once took his parents’ camcorder and filmed a bootleg video of Wicked on YouTube, just so he could have a DVD of Wicked. "People hate bootleggers. They are literally preserving history," says Cooper. "We wouldn't have imagery of Ethel Merman doing Gypsy if it wasn't for somebody sneaking a recorder in there."

And it is that industriousness that has led Cooper to launch the #SaveAintNoMo campaign after it was announced that the show was closing December 18, two weeks after its opening night—due to low ticket sales. “Ain’t No Mo’ needs your help! It’s a new original play that’s BLACK AF, which are both things that make it hard to sell on Broadway,” he wrote on Instagram. “People are coming, loving the show and calling it the best theatrical experience of their life, but traditional Broadway marketing doesn’t work for this kind of show.” He then added. “I believe great things happen in this world when the world ain’t ready.” He then encouraged people to buy tickets to the show.

The community has responded. Tyler Perry, Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade, and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, have bought out three nights of performances. The show’s producers RuPaul and Lena Waithe also hosted performances. It’s unclear if this will be enough to save the show, but stranger things have happened. After all, Cooper never expected Ain't No Mo' to be produced at all.

For Cooper, whenever he begins to doubt himself, he goes back to his favorite writer: Stephen Sondheim and the song “Move On,” the closing number from Sunday in the Park With George—particularly the line, “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see.”

“There's been so many times where I feel stuck,” he admits. “Or I feel like people don't understand the work, or people don't understand the show. And then I just have to realize, I didn't write it for everybody. I wrote it for myself in the beginning and then thankfully other people just came and sat at the table with me.” For Cooper, when he listens to that Sondheim song, “It always grounds me and reminds me: Literally, my existence is just to create and move forward.”

See Production Photos of Broadway's Ain’t No Mo’

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