It was Nov. 5, 2008, the day after Barack Obama’s election, and a young Black high school student was “beaming with pride, full of joy and optimism about his Blackness and everything he could be.” Then, on his locker, he saw a note: “Go Back To Africa.” And so, as any good writer or dramatist does when faced with a challenge, he took it.
It was a long way from that locker to a Broadway stage. But that is the journey that high school student, Jordan E. Cooper, now 27, took with Ain’t No Mo’, which would eventually grow from a response to that racist message into a full-length satirical play on race in America that would receive acclaim in productions at the Public Theater, Baltimore Center Stage, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, before opening Broadway’s Belasco Theatre on Dec. 1.
With the news that the show will close on Dec. 18, after just 22 previews and 21 regular performances, my disappointment is in what message this sends about how “perfect” Black work, our work, needs to be to be palatable to what is commonly recognized as the industry elite. We Black artists seemingly cannot afford to make a mistake, and that comes down to getting into the community to share our work and to share the productions with the people whose stories are being told. That type of intentional audience cultivation has been done in many communities, but not always in ours. And now that we are so far behind, dealing with a seemingly never-ending pandemic, it comes down to time. Reaching out to those who are not traditionally invited to the party will not be accomplished if we are not honest with our invitations, “because in order to have a lasting impact on your prospective audience, the relationship must be both personal and institutional,” as Donna Walker-Kuhne wrote in her book Invitation to the Party.
I remember those 10 pages like it was yesterday; I remember the feeling of yes when I devoured their every line. In truth, it had been both Jordan’s why and his what that drew me in. Just about a month before Obama’s victory, I had launched Blackboard Plays as a home for Black playwrights. Years later Cooper submitted the first 10 pages of the play he’d begun writing months prior to me. The show’s development went through The Fire This Time Festival in January 2017 to Blackboard, with the full-length version in February of the same year, to the Public Theater’s Public Studio a year later, in late March 2018, and finally to the full Public Theater production during the spring of 2019.
By the time I reconnected with Ain’t No Mo at the Public, I was in a different place. After seven years home with my children, after over a decade of freelance and supporting Black artists and storytellers through Black art-centered organizations, I had taken my first full-time position in years, as a line producer at one of the country’s most respected institutions. In many ways my personal journey mirrored that of Jordan’s piece. While continuing to run Blackboard, I was also one of the founders of the Obie-winning Harlem9. Each of us in our own way was searching for opportunities, and when we found them lacking, created our own. I was excited for this next step at the Public and what it meant for connections to the community like this one. Jordan had been through, and was connected to, several Black theatre organizations that had been uplifting his work as it made the rounds through our festivals and series. This was cultivation, and it included the proud aunties and cousins who would tell their friends and churches, women’s groups, barbershops—the folks who would have rallied around this Broadway production if they had only been given the chance.
Indeed, there are so many ways that this play could have been better set up for success. Jordan has been making the rounds on the talk shows, and his producing team, with Lee Daniels at the helm, included some of the biggest names. As I write this, social media is abuzz with messages hashtagged #SaveAintNoMo. Since Friday, when Cooper—one of the youngest Black American playwrights in the history of Broadway—penned an open letter to the community and launched the #SaveAintNoMo campaign in efforts to prolong the show’s run and boost ticket sales, several celebrities have joined in to support Ain’t No Mo’. An “After the Flight” Talkback hosted by co-producer Lena Waithe took place yesterday. Co-producer RuPaul will host a special performance on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have bought out a performance this week to show their support. This is all heartening, but, as Jordan told Variety, “It takes more than a week to build an audience.”
Young artists are sold the story of Broadway being the height of their field, when the reality is that the machine knows who and what it is made for; changing that requires a cultural shift that will be a lifetime in the making. There was a glimmer of hope in 2020, as the gruesome murder of George Floyd was broadcast into our homes, forcing the closed eyes of white America to witness the horror with which many Black Americans live. For our industry, this attention resulted in numerous efforts from We See You, White American Theatre to Black Theatre United. But as news cycles have marched on, support rooted in guilt has waned. And so our sense of urgency has returned, even as viruses rage on. (On a personal note: I was devastated to miss Ain’t No Mo’s Broadway opening due to COVID.)
Broadway is struggling right now, and shows without stars or brand names seem to be taking the biggest hit. We have spent the last few years focusing on uplifting Black stories through white organizations and inside of white institutions, instead of uplifting Black orgs and truly empowering more leaders of color to make the changes necessary to excel and to thrive. We are not having conversations with our audiences. We are not making it possible to reach them outside of the physical spaces, and to embrace streaming as we did during the height of the pandemic, when there was no other way. Obsessed with “business as usual,” we are forgetting our lessons and losing in a big way.
Personally, I have not let go of the streaming model, producing two festivals that have streaming aspects. The Black Motherhood and Parenting New Play Festival is a digital festival that uses an “elevated Zoom model” to support the stories by and about Black parents and caregivers. I co-created this festival during the summer of 2020, and we just concluded our second season. I am committed to keeping this an accessible way for parents and caregivers who often have to miss productions to engage with their colleagues.
And the Obsidian Theatre Festival is an in-person convening that films and streams plays, musical theatre showcases, and cabarets centered around Black artists and stories, all from my hometown of Detroit. I was brought on for the second season of this festival, founded by John Sloan III, native Detroiter and Lion King alum. OTF is embracing a future that is more inclusive, especially for our work to reach those that cannot come to the theatre. Imagine a world where Ain’t No ‘Mo was streamed to the Black communities that would have sent their New York cousins to fill its houses. Imagine if we were not constantly battling our unions for the opportunity to make the difference that Jordan set out to make with this play.
In Jordan’s original submission to Blackboard Plays, he testified that he writes “because the earth is an amazing muse that tends to carry the most beautiful, elegant, hilarious, and devastatingly brutal stories in existence. I write as an attempt to capture these stories that walk among me. To capture them and translate them into some form of understanding or more likely, the lack thereof. I write plays to ask a question and to challenge the answer.”
In April 2022, I was promoted to become the Public’s first director of innovation and new media. Stepping into a new role like this comes with a lot, especially at an institution as robust as the Public. Perhaps in this role I can be part of the intentional cultivation of audiences, while leaning into new media opportunities that increase accessibility. I don’t have all the answers; I don’t think that any one person does. What I do have is a devotion to community and history, and the hope that we can do better for everyone, our visionaries and young hopefuls.
Jordan is a light, and we didn’t treat that light right. He is just one of many lights we continue to push away because they don’t fit the field we’ve built. We have work to do, but first we have to answer the question: How serious are we about the future of our Black stories?
Garlia Cornelia Jones (she/her) is a writer, producer, photographer, and mother. Social media: @garliacornelia.
The original version of this article said that Cooper was the youngest Black playwright ever on Broadway; he shares that honor with Ntozake Shange, who was 27 when for colored girls played on Broadway in 1976.
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