To read about the other culture transitions for February, return to the list here.
One evening the previous December Jordan E. Cooperdrama “not my” staged at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, a playlist featuring Luther Vandross, Destiny’s Child, Missy Elliott and Juvenile was booed by the speakers. Several Black audience members began twirling and singing from their orchestra seats in the front row and some elderly white people sitting nearby were confused.
This was exactly the kind of crowd participation that Cooper envisioned: seeing new and regular Black theater patrons unapologetically embrace modern American drama by young Black playwrights on the Broadway stage.
“That’s literally what I came to do: take this space – because the third balcony was a section reserved for colored people when the theater was first built, so you’d think we’re literally in a building which was designed to name it. Freedom is freedom and we strive to be small, out of the way, quiet and invisible,” Cooper said.
“Ain’t No Mo’,” Cooper’s Broadway debut, combines sketch comedy, satire, church sermons, pop culture, history, current events and avant-garde theater. The show depicts a hypothetical massacre of Black passengers on a one-way flight back to Africa as a solution to eradicating racism and social injustice. The Obie Award-winning playwright became the youngest Black person since Lorraine Hansberry to produce a theater production for the Broadway stage.
Cooper began writing “Ain’t No Mo'” in 2016 as a cathartic way to deal with police killings of unarmed black people. He began reading some of the pages to the show’s director, Stevie Walker-Webb, at a dinner party before spending three days at Webb’s home to finish the writing. Cooper introduced a 10-minute version of “Ain’t No Mo'” at the Kraine Theater that year before his world premiere at The Public Theatre three years later.
While Cooper, 28, admits to being a nerd for any Black history facts and figures, the outspoken writer is more interested in producing quality work that celebrates and crosses his Black and queer identities , like Hansberry.
“I’m very grateful that I get to follow her lead,” he said. “A Raisin in the Sun was probably one of the first plays I ever read. She really shook up how Black people were seen on the American stage, and I’m going to continue that legacy of shaking up how Black people are seen.”
Cooper played Peaches, the spicy, no-nonsense flight attendant who looks like an amalgamation of Megan Thee Stallion, Lucille Ball and Whitney Houston. Beginning on November 9th, the performance put on 22 preview shows at the Belasco ahead of its 29 total performances from December 1st to December 23rd. The show was extended from its final date of December 18 after the #saveAINTNOMO campaign Cooper created in an effort to draw attention to the lack of outreach and marketing that Broadway provides to attract Black audiences.
Despite the archaic Broadway style of promotion, “Ain’t No Mo'” was heavily verbally supported by various Black public figures. Lee Daniels, RuPaul, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union appeared as producers. Tyler Perry, Shonda Rhimes and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith bought out many performances, and Patti LaBelle, Whoopi Goldberg, Queen Latifah and Billy Porter were in attendance.
“They believed in the work that was going on, they thought it deserved to be there and people needed to see it,” Cooper said. “That’s the job: to put your money where your mouth is. If you want to see Black art succeed, pour it in. I can’t thank them enough, and he’s setting the model for how we should look to do things in the future, how we need to support each other and work we believe in.”
Cooper, who launched his own production company, Cookout Entertainment, has no regrets about pouring his energy into developing his major stage work but knows that he must include that same dedication in his future output. “The problem is that a lot of people didn’t know about it,” he said.
“It continues the conversation about getting Black people not only on stage but in the seats. Broadway needs to be more strategic about letting Black people know that the shows are there for them too, and not trying to put Denzel in the play for Black people to hear about it. We need to let people know that they can be themselves and enjoy themselves when they come into the theatre.”
Cooper is also a small screen change agent. He is the co-creator, executive producer and executive producer of his first television project, the BET+ live-viewer sitcom “Mr. Pat’s Show,” begins its third season on February 23. The multi-camera series premiered in 2021 and made Cooper, then-26, the youngest Black showrunner in television history. BET scored its first Emmy Award nomination in 42 years for the straight-to-chaser program.
The playwright landed “The Ms. Pat Show” after Daniels, who vetted Cooper as a writer on his 2018 series “Star,” encouraged him to cast comedian Patricia “Ms. Pat” Williams’ 2017 memoir, “Rabbit,” to see if he could come up with a show concept. Williams already had a deal with Fox, but Cooper knew the nonstop tone belonged to another network. A lifelong fan of TV legend Norman Lear, Cooper believed that a classic R-rated sitcom that allowed him to address issues such as Black people in therapy, depression, sexual assault and generational mistakes without being preachy could work. .
Cooper is leading two lives this coming season and taping one episode a week, juggling both stage and screen duties. The Drama Series Award recipient knows how quickly his crew can deliver the fly if he whispers a monologue or joke in the ears of the cast or makes random script suggestions.
“I’ll say a move, and they’ll deliver it like they’ve been practicing all week,” Cooper said. “It moves fast, but you can play with it. I can talk about all these things that put the privilege of television in people’s living rooms. I’m glad I can make people laugh and create the hooded version of Ethel and Lucy.
Williams worked with a few TV writers that didn’t work out, but Cooper said he was “the first writer I had who listened and listened.”
“He was just a live recorder, everything I said he wrote down,” Williams said. “If you’re working with Jordan and Pat, it’s more than money, it’s a relationship. An unbreakable relationship.”
Growing up near Dallas-Fort Worth in the football-crazed town of Hurst, Texas, Cooper started out as an athlete before realizing he had a knack for storytelling. By the time he was 6 years old, he enjoyed making performances featuring TikTok sketches and Instagram reels in his living room and backyard but had no clue that he could pursue writing and performing as his way of life. When he was 7, he ruffled some feathers in his church when his parents were pulled aside after he wrote a play that exposed some of the community’s dirty laundry.
“I couldn’t help but tell stories, and it found me in the most organic way,” Cooper said. “I would love to do it. I would cut up my mum’s wigs and my dad’s work uniform to make costumes or double my teddy bear with the camera on the back of his head to make it look like I was talking to myself.”
Cooper took a leap of faith and moved to New York City in 2014 to enroll at the New School of Drama to study acting and playwriting. Posting in theater lobbies to write socially conscious scripts such as “Black Boy Fly,” “Alice Wonder” and “Sweet Chariot” because he could not afford tickets, he was regularly cast as extra to pay the bills. The Whiting Award for Drama recipient starred in the final season of “Pose” in 2021 as Tyrone, who took over Billy Porter’s character, Pray Tell, as an announcer in the ballroom.
The multi-faceted drama credits the lack of close relatives or friends near New York for building his confidence in his creativity and identity. “I found the freedom I had in my writing,” Cooper said.
“No one was interested as a Black boy growing up in the South. Being sharper is not where it’s at. It’s not cute, and it’s not fun. You feel like the only one in the world a lot of times, but in New York, nobody gives a damn.”
Cooper is most proud of taking to the Broadway stage on his own terms. He knows that more work needs to be done: he always strives to fight for more diversity, equity and inclusion in the audience by creating art that reflects the crowd. He continues to question how a white audience in the theater will respond to his voice but realizes that creating what is authentic brings real change.
“It’s writing what feels real to me, but writing what scares me,” Cooper said. “It was so beautiful that people felt they had never seen that kind of Blackness on stage before, but we should be free in any space no matter who is listening, watching or watching. We’ve spent too much of a century in this country editing ourselves, so it’s up to the artists to have those bold, open conversations that people already have at home.”