Ain’t No Mo’, the Broadway debut of author and star Jordan E. Cooper, opened at the Belasco Theatre on Dec. 1 to the sort of reviews producers and playwrights dream about. Even the few critics who weren’t completely won over couldn’t help but point out a singular brilliance at work here, not to mention a stars-in-the-making cast and more laugh-out-loud moments than most of the rest of Broadway combined. A celebrity-packed opening night, with producer Lee Daniels greeting a crowd that included Gabrielle Union, Dwayne Wade and C. J. Uzomah – who happen to be among the starry cohort of co-producers – as well as Matthew Broderick, Tamron Hall, Deborah Cox, Stephanie Mills, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Susan Kelechi Watson, Camryn Manheim, Tony Kushner, Tituss Burgess, Gayle King, Pat Williams, Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Colton Ryan, Ari’el Stachel and Timothy Olyphant suggested nothing less than the buzzy arrival of Broadway’s next big thing, out-of-the-box division.
Ten days later, Daniels, an early and fervent champion of the piece, announced that the show would close early on Sunday, Dec. 18, after just 22 previews and 21 regular performances. Ain’t No Mo’ was to have run until March.
Shortly after the announcement, Cooper went on Instagram to muster support. “Ain’t No Mo’ needs your help!,” began a lengthy and funny post. “It’s a new original play that’s BLACK AF…Now they’ve posted an eviction notice, we “must close” Dec. 18th. But thank God Black people are immune to eviction notices.”
In a subsequent IG video, Cooper, appearing as his Ain’t No Mo’ character Peaches, a flight attendant on African Americans Airline Flight #1619 – yes, the number references just what you think it does – beseeches ticket-buyers to come to the Belasco. “I just got this job and I can’t go back to McDonalds, I just don’t have the McDouble spirit.”
Even those that pay attention to weekly Broadway box office figures were shocked, if not surprised. The show – a phantasmagorical melding of sketch comedy and satire, social commentary and slapstick, belly laughs and no-holds sobs, all the vignettes built around the premise that the U.S. government has decided to solve its “race problem” by sending Black people back to Africa – had been barely scratching out a few coins for its coffers – the week after it opened to strong reviews, it grossed a small $164,592, filling only 47% of the venue’s seats with a barely-there average ticket price of about $43.
Still, for a show with so much celebrity clout – not the least being super-producer Daniels himself, who conquered TV with Empire and Star and movie screens with Precious and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, to name a few – the publicity would seem to have ensured at least a small grace period for finding an audience. In recent weeks, a series of celebrity co-producers were brought on board – at least in large part for the publicity and awareness they could lend – and just this week Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith bought out an entire performance to show their support. RuPaul and Lena Waithe, both co-producers, plan to host post-show Q&As this week.
So what happened? And is there really a chance for a reprieve? (There is precedent, of course, and not just for a monster hit like The Phantom of the Opera: Last year, the acclaimed – and equally quirky – productions of Is This A Room and Dana H. received two-week extensions after early closing notices prompted an uptick in ticket sales.
“I’ve got some last minute tricks up my sleeve to try to keep this show alive,” Daniels says in this Deadline conversation with the director and Cooper.
“We don’t mind going down,” says the playwright, “but we ain’t going down without a fight.”
Directed by Broadway newcomer Stevie Walker-Webb, Ain’t No Mo’ features, in addition to Cooper, Fedna Jacquet, Marchánt Davis, Shannon Matesky, Ebony Marshall-Oliver and Crystal Lucas-Perry.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
DEADLINE: Tell me what’s going through your minds. You opened to great reviews, and soon after announced the closing.
LEE DANIELS: The reality is that we are closing but desperately trying to figure out how to get people in the seats because once people see it, they go crazy for it. It happened so fast, you know. We were just beginning to get traction and then we realized that we were in a hole, and so, it’s just been a marketing thing about how do we get people to come see this show?
DEADLINE: And at what point did you realize there was a marketing problem and that you were in a [financial] hole?
DANIELS: We thought that when the reviews came out we’d sort of catch fire, you know. All shows are always a little bit behind the eight ball. I didn’t anticipate the…I’m sorry I’m still out of it right now, I’m still trying to process it as I speak to you, so, give me a second. Jordan, do you want to step in?
JORDAN E. COOPER: I keep on telling people that I feel like I’m in a comfort zone right now. You know, I’ve been doing plays for the public since I was 10 years old, and I’ve always galvanized the community by going out to churches and going out to restaurants and going out to community centers and standing outside the theaters handing out flyers for my shows, and now I’m in a place again where I’m galvanizing the community to come out and support, and it kind of feels like home in a way. A part of me is like dang, Jordan, you were foolish for thinking Broadway was anything else.
I think what we’re witnessing right now on Broadway is that it’s hard for shows of color when you don’t have a celebrity lead, and you’re not based on any sort of intellectual property and you don’t have a Britney Spears song or a Katy Perry song or a Backstreet Boys song somewhere in your show, because right now people are buying tickets for sure bets.
If they see Denzel Washington is in something then it’s like yeah, we don’t care what the play is, we just want to see Denzel Washington, right, or on the opposite, it’s like we don’t know who’s in but we know it’s about Michael Jackson so we’re going to go see it, right? That’s what’s happening right now, but you know somebody had to go see Denzel in A Soldier’s Play in the ‘80s in order for Denzel to become Denzel, right?
For shows like Ain’t No Mo’ that don’t have the upper hand of having a celebrity, or of having an IP attached, it takes time, especially when you’re a show of color, especially when you’re a Black show, it’s takes time to find your audience because people don’t know who you are.
Where’s an Ain’t No Mo’ billboard on Church Avenue? Where is it at in Harlem? On 125th Street and Malcolm X? Like there are none, right? You know, the government is very strategic about putting liquor stores in Black neighborhoods and prisons in Black neighborhoods, [Broadway] should be as strategic as a government marketing team to rethink how we put these Black Broadway shows in Black neighborhoods. The same kind of fervor that the government has, we should have as a community in order to get people in those seats, to say, Hey, you belong here too, to say, Hey, there’s something happening on Broadway and it concerns you.
One of my favorite stories is about when Lloyd Richards directed A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway and he talks about how he saw a black woman go up to the box office – because it was hard to see a lot of Black people go to Broadway back then – and he saw a Black woman go up to this box office…and put down two dollars to see Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, and the box office said Sorry, ma’am, it’s going to be four dollars, so she took out two more dollars and put it down and got her ticket. So Lloyd Richards went up to her, and she doesn’t know he’s the director, and he says, Ma’am, can I ask you a question? Why would you pay four dollars to see Sidney Poitier on Broadway rather than just paying two dollars to go see him in a movie up the street? And she said, Word is going around my neighborhood that there’s something happening here that concerns me and I need to come see what it is.
We are in a spot right now where Ain’t No Mo’ is a play that concerns people in the neighborhoods that it’s not being marketed to.
DANIELS: The thing is that marketing companies as a whole generally don’t know how to market for African American theater because Blacks aren’t on Broadway, and it’s not really meant for us, you know. Broadway isn’t meant for us. So, you’re dealing with marketing people and strategies that don’t exist for us, and we’re dealing with marketing teams that don’t know how to market for our demo.
But Ain’t No Mo’ is bigger than just the African American experience. All the [rave] reviews have been from white people that have spoken loud and clear about what they think of the material. But we’re not getting African Americans into the seats of Broadway. We do not feel comfortable there. When I see a Broadway play, I’m the only Black person in the theater. This is all about figuring out how to get our people into the theater
COOPER: Even with the traditional Broadway audience who’s being marketed towards, you know, if there’s not a Pulitzer Prize attached or if there’s not out-of-town tryouts that they’ve heard about, it’s a little bit harder. When you think about Strange Loop, which is a Black masterpiece, had the benefit of when they were Off Broadway and then the pandemic happened they released the cast album, then won the Pulitzer Prize, then they had an out-of-town tryout which got a whole bunch of buzz and they went straight taking that exact same production from the out-of-town tryouts to Broadway, which comes with its own buzz, right?…Or you think about Slave Play, which was the most buzzed about show in town, and it immediately went from Off Broadway to Broadway so there’s this buzz that’s already associated with it.
With Ain’t No Mo’ we had buzz Off Broadway [at the Public Theater] – Steven Spielberg came and Angela Davis came and all these amazing people came and supported the show and they’re like this is the best thing we’ve ever seen, but I don’t think people knew what to do with it. It wasn’t expected to be as big of a hit as it was Off Broadway, and then when the show closed and the pandemic hit, we had nowhere to go. We didn’t have an out-of-town tryout. We don’t have a Pulitzer Prize. So it was like, Okay, let’s try to build this thing back from the ground up again, right, and it takes time. We haven’t even had a chance to let even our reviews do some work for us.
DEADLINE: When the decision to close was made, was there any possibility that the production could have lasted even another few weeks, or was the financial situation so dire that even that just wasn’t possible
DANIELS: It was dire. It is dire. The financial burden is on Lee Daniels. We are in the hole a lot. Hopefully we can turn this ship around. There is a miracle out there.
DEADLINE: Are you saying that there’s a possibility that you could rescind the closing notice or that you could extend the run?
DANIELS: The theater is [available] until March. So, we have the theater until March. We just have to get out of the hole. We have to sell tickets.
COOPER: We’ve got to get an audience in there. People are hearing about it now because of Save Ain’t No Mo’, people who didn’t even know the play was in trouble. They thought they had until March to come see the show, and also some people have never even heard of this show, didn’t even know it existed, didn’t even know there’s a show that was on Broadway like this for them. This is really Black experimental theater and it’s done in a way that I think is commercial and can be done commercially, but people just did not know that it existed. It takes a second to create some buzz.
DEADLINE: Lee, what kind of weekly growth at the box office would you need to keep the show going?
DANIELS: I don’t know that I’m comfortable sharing that information. I can’t talk numbers. I literally can’t talk numbers based on my relationships with my other investors.
DEADLINE: Well, let me ask you this then. In hindsight, what would you have done differently, if you knew then what you know now…
DANIELS: My intent was to bring Jordan and his words and this cast of brilliant unknowns to Broadway. But a lot of this also has to do with Covid, all of theater is down and all the shows are being hit. We’re just part of the impact of what’s happening on Broadway.
DEADLINE: But some shows are doing phenomenally well. Funny Girl with Lea Michele. The Music Man, and Some Like It Hot seems to be catching on. More than ever, after Covid, there seems to be a very wide divide between the haves and the have-nots in theater. Is there a way to get to a middle place where an Ain’t No Mo’ can exist on Broadway?
DANIELS: Wouldn’t that be great? It’d be fantastic if we could get to a middle place. I’ve been watching Some Like It Hot and their marketing campaign. They’re putting in a gazillion dollars, it seems. You see billboards everywhere. We simply don’t have that budget.
DEADLINE: But you do have a marketing team. Do you have criticism of the way it worked or is it…
DANIELS: I think it’s very hard to do. The play itself, in the marketing team’s defense, is a hard nut to crack. It is hard. Jordan’s work has never existed on Broadway. There’s no template to follow for something like this.
COOPER: That’s exactly what I was going to say. I was going to say it’s really about they do what they know. They do what they know.
DANIELS: And what they know is not for our show. That’s the dilemma that we’re having right now because there’s never been anything like this on Broadway for a marketing team to wrap their head around, to go out and market it, if that makes any sense. So, I’m not going to drag them. I think that they worked diligently and hard to try to figure out how to market an ostrich egg.
COOPER: It’s bigger than Ain’t No Mo’ and that’s the thing that I’m saying whenever I’m on Twitter and I’m saying Broadway marketing has to change. It’s not about our marketing team. It’s about how Broadway works. It’s about the tools that have been built to build the master’s house.
I think Broadway and Broadway marketing particularly have to look in the mirror and say how do we move because they’re just not equipped with the tools for the new wave of work that’s coming in on Broadway. That’s a conversation that we’ve got to have: how do we equip them with the tools to get to us, to do the work that needs to be done so that a show doesn’t have to close a week after opening.
DEADLINE: Ain’t No Mo’ recently made announcements that a number of celebrities had joined the team as co-producers [Dwyane Wade, Gabrielle Union, RuPaul, Lena Waithe, Jeremy O. Harris, CJ Uzomah]. Did that help at the box office?
DANIELS: Yeah, there was an uptick. There was an uptick then, and there has been an uptick since we’ve announced our closing too, but it takes a second.
Listen, I’ve got some last minute tricks up my sleeve to try to keep this show alive. I don’t know whether they’re going to work.
DEADLINE: What last-minute tricks?
DANIELS: A magician can’t tell you his tricks. As of right now, we’re officially closing. And I can’t tell you my secrets to trying to keep the show alive.
[Later in the conversation, Daniels said:] I think that if we get some people to buy out houses until we can get traction, until we can get enough traction to get the audience members to come…I just want to make sure I get this right because, and I know I’m on the record here, this is the kind of play that changes the conversation.
Look, my nephews would rather spend $250 on a pair of Nike sneakers than go to Broadway. They would rather spend $200 to see Rihanna. But this changes the conversation with them. They would sit their asses in the theater and watch this and they would spend that kind of money, so it’s just about getting people to support us until we can get that traction.
COOPER: We don’t mind going down, but we ain’t going down without a fight. We got to fight because we believe in the work. This kind of work deserves to be on Broadway. The material…it tastes good. When I found out about the closing notice, I’m like what is it? What is it? Is something not right? Is it the show? And I sit back and I watch that show every night and I listen to it and I’m hearing those audiences. I’m literally just hit with audience members weeping. If it wasn’t for the ushers putting them out of the theater, a lot of them would just stay in their seats and talk because it’s one of those theatrical experiences that doesn’t come every year. It doesn’t come every five years or every ten years. It is probably a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience and people are saying that. We had 50 plus people outside the theater the other day chanting Ain’t No Mo’. That is the work, and the work is delicious and we just need people to pull up to the table and take out their knives and forks.