2019 marks a solemn observance that all Americans, and really the world, should reflect on: the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans first arriving in Jamestown, VA. Recently, I had a transformative experience that motivated me to reflect deeply on this anniversary. This experience also led me to consider how the Black body articulates its complex relationship with America, how the Black body is portrayed in theater and entertainment, and how the dehumanization and commodification of Black bodies inform the foundation of our nation and our society.
The experience was seeing Ain’t No Mo at the Public Theater.
Written by African-American playwright Jordan E. Cooper and directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, Ain’t No Mo takes audiences on a complicated journey in which African Americans are offered, and most opt for, an exodus from America — on a one-way ticket back to Africa. They naturally depart through Gate 1619 on Flight 1619. Fresh, relevant and often as irreverent as a satirical slap in the face, the play reflects a reality in which despair brings African Americans, tied to America for four centuries, reach a final point of no return.
The play also harvests harsh images from America’s slavery past, and the complicated acts of resistance that instilled a resilient spirit historically among Black Americans. One scene mirrored the acts of slave mothers killing their unborn babies to avoid entering the world as a slave. In another, upper-class Black Americans attempt to silence coded Blackness through the slaughter of the “slave in our basement.” Characters spoke their discontent over the stolen humanity that Black men and women experience through the criminal justice system.
Such relevance permeates every character — brilliantly performed by six-actor ensemble — but it is most personified by a trickster-like archetype character, Peaches, who is played by Cooper. While the concept of Black drag inspired laughter and applause, Peaches also represents a Sojourner Truth for the 21st century — an illusory effort to shepherd Black Americans to a new Promised Land.
I felt like I had a relationship with each scene, character and actor. I revisited the hope that some African Americans felt the night that Barack Obama was elected President: the sense that now all things were possible for people of color in America; that America had turned a corner on the racial glass ceiling. I revisited the frustration and disappointment that, despite the historic election of a Black President, the process that elected him was the same one that elected Donald Trump to be his successor. I revisited the truth that while there have been social, economic and political advancements in America for some African Americans and other people of color, our capitalist system was built on slavery, subjugation and the power of privileged interests.
After the performance, audiences walk past a large American flag. That’s a mesmerizing moment — watching people carry the weight of the knowledge of the contemporary Black experience, whether new to them or reminded of it, past a flag whose cultural fabrics were sewn with Native and African blood and tears.
These feelings were strong, resonant, but not unfamiliar: we, the audience, are implicated in Ain’t No Mo, too. After watching how satire and many other genres of the play remind us of the stories, told and untold, of Black and brown Americans who continue to face unequal biases stemming from 400 years of mechanizing our bodies and colonizing our minds, how would we now walk past our flag, our American flag, without being changed?
While audiences laughed at an over-the-top church funeral scene for a common-trope character named Brother Righttocomplain, 21-year-old Holden Matthews, the white male son of a Louisiana sheriff, was being charged for arson and hate crimes for burning three historic Black churches in that state. Did you know that Wikipedia has a List of Attacks Against African-American Churches stretching from 1822 to Apr. 4, 2019?
Ain’t No Mo reminded me that no one will ever understand the 400-year-old pain that African Americans have experienced, and still experience, individually and collectively. This is why playwright Cooper, a 20-something Black gay male, felt compelled to continue telling the stories that George C. Wolfe told to an earlier generation through his play The Colored Museum, and those of the Black playwrights that came before him.
Like Cooper, I am a Black gay man in arts and culture. Not only am I working strategically to ensure that our voices are heard in new work, but that our voices are heard behind the scenes and contribute directly to the decision-making at cultural institutions that determine all of the voices that are heard, exhibited and presented.
That Cooper and Wolfe’s plays even exist, that they can be consumed by me and the world, teaches us that America owes all Americans the equitable opportunities in the promise that we are all created equal — for we’ve learned that equal does not mean equitable for Black and brown people. I’m fortunate to have lived to see America elect its first Black President. But I know it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to examine our history of slavery and capitalism, which are uniquely and forever intertwined. As we know, our current expression of American culture still reeks of chains, cages and complicated promises.