Photography: Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock
This is the call that every playwright dreads. Jordan E Cooper, whose Ain’t No Mo received critical acclaim on Broadway, has been told his beloved show will end on Sunday – just 17 days after it opened.
But instead of feeling sorry for himself, Cooper, the youngest black American playwright to have a Broadway show, tries to defend himself. He released an open letter urging people to buy tickets and halt the production run. Her provocative stance garnered support from actor and drag queen RuPaul and Hollywood stars Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.
“I don’t think it was fair,” the 27-year-old told the Guardian by phone from New York. “If a game gets a good shot and it doesn’t work out, it’s like, OK, I got a good shot. But if the game looks like it doesn’t, it’s so much bigger than what it’s getting right now , that the resources that it has right now, that the marketing that it has at the moment, so I feel like I have to stand up and fight because I think this game kind of represents the future. other playwrights who are going to come up with equally difficult plays that might not have Denzel Washington to play in them.
Ain’t No Mo premiered at the Public Theater in 2019. With a mix of skit, satire, avant-garde and drag, it asks a provocative question: what if the US government offered Black Americans tickets to one-way flight to Africa? New York Times theater critic Jesse Green described it as “thrilling, disconcerting, campy, artful, mortifying, frightening, devastating and profound”. Cooper, who is also a cast member, recalls that Steven Spielberg described it as the most cinematic play he had ever seen.
“It started with an exploration of what it would be like if every black person in America got an email saying they had to go back to Africa. You watch all these different people across the country deciding whether or not they’re going take that last flight. It came from my own kind of exploration trying to find a way out; trying to find light in the darkness; trying to find laughter in the pain.
“Where it comes from is seeing all these unarmed black men and women being killed and murdered within weeks of each other. I was thinking, what if we all leave this behind? And if we just said goodbye, we don’t do that anymore. The play was born out of that idea and then as I started to write it I realized it wasn’t as easy as everyone thought and it wasn’t as romantic as we were. pensions, so maybe it takes some work.
The show’s transfer to Broadway was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but it finally opened at the Belasco Theater on December 1 to an audience that included Gabrielle Union (a co-producer), Matthew Broderick, Tamron Hall, Gayle King and Tony Kushner. Cooper describes the audience reaction so far as “breathtaking” with people standing outside the theater chanting, “Ain’ No Mo!”
So it kicked the solar plexus last week when producer Lee Daniels announced the show was set to abruptly shut down on Sunday after a measly 22 previews and 21 regular performances. Entertainment website Deadline reported that last week the show earned just $120,901 at the box office, which isn’t enough to cover its running costs.
Cooper got a call from Daniels himself with the bad news. “I think he was trying to soften the blow a bit and I was shocked, not necessarily because I didn’t understand where it was coming from – it takes time to get an audience – but I just didn’t think not that it would happen so quickly.
“We hadn’t necessarily gone all the way to find an audience. We had no billboards; we didn’t have a bus; we didn’t have a metro; we didn’t have TV commercials. Our marketing budget wasn’t huge because we depended on people seeing the game and word of mouth. It just takes a little longer when you don’t have a celebrity or you don’t have intellectual property that people recognize, especially on Broadway right now.
He elaborates, “It’s tough for the post-pandemic Broadway era, but it’s even tougher when you’re a niche show with unrecognizable stars and material and you’re a show of color, which is even more difficult, especially with a show like this that is written for everyone but specifically for the black community.
“A lot of people watching me had no idea he existed. We didn’t have billboards on 125th and Malcolm X, we didn’t have billboards in Harlem and Brooklyn and those places where I felt people would like the show but didn’t get a chance to experience the show. We didn’t have time to do anything so it was a shock.
But with a burning sense of injustice, Cooper refused to accept it. He published an open letter pleading for help, describing Ain’t No Mo as “an original new PLAY that’s BLACK AF, which are two things that make it hard to sell on Broadway”. He wrote that an eviction notice had been posted for Dec. 18 “but thank God black people are safe from eviction notices. The Wiz had one on opening night in 1974, but audiences turned it around and it lasted four years.
He ended the letter by pointing out that the average ticket price is $50 to make the show accessible. “In the name of the art, in the name of the resistance, in the name of we belong here too, in the name of every storytelling ancestor who has ever graced a stage on Broadway or been told they couldn’t ever, BUY A TICKET and come have church with us Radical Black’s work belongs on Broadway too.
The call struck a chord. Co-producer RuPaul will host a special performance on Thursday. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith bought a performance this week to show their support, as did Tyler Perry. Cooper was interviewed by civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton on MSNBC’s influential Morning Joe program.
The pandemic has prompted the longest shutdown in Broadway history while the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have forced a racial reckoning for this industry as for many others. When theaters reopened in the fall of 2021, there were a record seven works by black playwrights. The current season includes The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, 91, and A Strange Loop, a new musical by Michael R Jackson which won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Prize but will close next month.
But in a blow to diversity efforts, KPOP, a musical celebrating the popular Korean musical genre of the same name with a predominantly Asian and Asian American cast, closed last Sunday after just 44 previews and 17 regular performances. It was Broadway’s first Korean-centric musical written by Korean Americans and the first with an Asian female composer. Overall ticket sales have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Cooper reflects, “We’ve come so far, but we still have a long way to go. The fact that A Strange Loop is on Broadway is amazing. The fact that it’s a hit on Broadway is amazing. But also A Strange Loop is the only show to win a Pulitzer Prize and Tony for Best Musical and close before playing a year.
As for Ain’t No Mo, he won’t go down without a fight. “I step back and wonder, is this show any good? I say it’s great. These performances that these actors give are not your usual Broadway performances. Literally six different people play like 20 different characters and they play them to the bone, they play them like full human beings and change in seconds. It’s masterful.
“I believe people deserve to see these performances and people deserve to hear this story. This is a truly wild and outrageous yet heartbreaking story. If there was ever an American play that deserved to be seen on a Broadway stage, I believe this is the kind of story that deserves it. The plays and playwrights who come later in this line deserve this same right.