Review | ‘Ain’t No Mo’ ’ offers side-splitting laughs and gut-punching truths

Senegal is the destination on African American Airlines Flight 1619 in “Ain’t No Mo’,” playwright Jordan E. Cooper’s searingly satirical tragicomedy now onstage at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and every Black person stateside must depart or consent to “racial transmogrification.”

An electric Jon Hudson Odom plays drag queen Peaches, the gate agent in a framing device structured around the last “reparations” flight to leave American shores — captained by Barack Obama himself, no less. But the destination is less integral to “Ain’t No Mo’ ” than its myriad layovers, as Cooper muses on the Black American experience through loosely connected, time-jumping vignettes. Police violence, reproductive health care, cultural appropriation, the prison industrial complex: Cooper delivers absurdist scenarios with a knack for splitting your sides before delivering a punch to your gut.

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“Ain’t No Mo’ ” originated at New York’s Public Theater in 2019, and that Stevie Walker-Webb-directed production is headed to Broadway this fall with filmmaker Lee Daniels as a producer. In the Woolly version, mounted in association with Baltimore Center Stage, the sketch-show-like format lands in the capable hands of director Lili-Anne Brown. The onetime Second City performer succeeds by giving Odom — whose ferociously flippant Peaches is the play’s emcee of sorts — and a chameleonic five-actor ensemble free rein to play up Cooper’s incisive material.

Breon Arzell shines in the opening vignette, as a preacher mourning the death of “Brother Right To Complain” in the wake of Obama’s 2008 election victory, guiding the voice-cracking character through a call-and-response before playing the scene’s sobering end with soul-piercing pain. Arzell also leaves an impression as the gossip-thirsty, hand fan-wielding host of “The Real Baby Mamas of the South Side,” a sketch that cleverly interrogates reality television’s artifice.

Shannon Matesky stands out in that scene as well, as a brassy Rachel Dolezal analog with no shortage of self-righteousness. Shannon Dorsey is heartbreaking in an early vignette about the endless anxieties of raising a Black child in modern America. LaNisa Frederick delights as the personification of Black in a sketch about a wealthy family that has lost touch with its roots, then devastates as a prisoner unprepared for her return to society. Perhaps no performer yields more laughs than Brandi Porter, a charismatic stage presence with an uncanny knack for punching up the humor.

If there’s a nit to be picked here, it’s one of pacing for a play in which a couple of sketches move a tad too leisurely. From a craft perspective, Brown oversees a tiptop production. Arnel Sancianco’s transformative set — a stylish airport gate that reinvents itself from sketch to sketch — elevates the illusion, as do the immaculate details of Yvonne Miranda’s eye-popping costumes. Colin K. Bills’s spot-on lighting leaves a particular impression in the prison scene, as bolder colors give way to a cold, fluorescent haze.

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Considering the playbill presents the timing as “Any Day Now” (aside from the 2008-set opener), it shouldn’t surprise that Cooper’s script speaks to the moment in ways both pointed and unanticipated. For example, upon learning of the free passage to Africa, one character responds, “Why would I trust a plane ticket from the government?”

It’s a line that hits with renewed resonance after dozens of migrants were duped into flying to Martha’s Vineyard last week. As “Ain’t No Mo’ ” sadly but sharply illustrates, that brand of American callousness has no departure date.

Ain’t No Mo’, by Jordan E. Cooper. Directed by Lili-Anne Brown. Sets, Arnel Sancianco; costumes, Yvonne Miranda; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Tosin Olufolabi; fight and intimacy choreography, Jyreika Guest. About two hours. $20-$67, with a limited number of pay-what-you-will tickets. Through Oct. 9 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW.

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