Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

ArtCultureFilm / TV

lee daniels & jordan e. cooper on voice and vernacular

May 8, 2019

When the world is dark and heavy, it is art that can be used as a weapon to break down stereotypes, shift the status quo, and create change. As Black people, our very being is often perceived as a brilliant form of performance art. We’ve learned from our ancestors that our very existence depended on the ability to be smart, intellectual, chameleon-like and provocative, to fain ignorance and be humorous — often, all at the same time. It’s called survival.

From preachers to professors, you can’t beat Black folk when it comes to storytelling and rhetoric. We have a flair for dramatics. And if you are Black and gay, there is also the eloquence of throwing shade because your life often depends on your ability to outsmart the dominant culture — whatever their race, color or gender identity — with words or fight for your life.

The Off-Broadway play Ain’t No Mo’ which ran to sold-out crowds until this past Sunday night at New York’s Public Theater, is an amalgamation of Black life, self-actualization, and survival. Written by Jordan E. Cooper, the play serves as art that forces us to look at the world we live in through a Black lens, without courtesy or apology. It’s rough and real at the same time — sort of like a really good therapy session that rips the band-aid off your emotional and psychological wounds.

Cooper plays Peaches, a Black drag queen who works for African American Airlines, and is checking Black passengers onto the last flight from the United States to Africa. A mass alert has been sent to Black folks, encouraging them to leave America for the Motherland or be racially modified. Drama, introspection, classicism, social analysis, and historical exorcism all ensue.

The play has received critical acclaim because of Jordan’s writing, his tour de force portrayal of Peaches, and the brilliant direction of Stevie Walker Webb. But Ain’t No Mo’ also had a bit of support from its producer, the Academy Award-nominated director and TV powerhouse Lee Daniels.

AFROPUNK talked to Lee and Jordan about their connection as mentor/protege, writers and Black gay men.

I’m excited to talk to you about this, because we’ve had these side conversations. But I want to get your thoughts about what connected you to Ain’t No Mo’ and Jordan’s work?

LEE DANIELS: I was in search of a writer for a TV show [STAR]. I didn’t think the show was going to be a hit if we didn’t think out of the box, so I said to my agent, ‘Listen, I got to go to New York and I’ve got to find some new voices.’ I met with several gay Black playwrights, and developed relationships with them, and saw Jordan’s work. A really, really, early version of it. And I knew the potential of which the play had to be. And not only did I see the voice, hear the voice, for this show, but I also was happy that the Public let me in to produce his show. So that was really good, and I was excited about that too.

JORDAN E. COOPER: I’d always been a fan of The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe, which is basically a bunch of exhibits examining what it is to be Black in America. And, like, he does it through a series of museum exhibits telling you to walk in this room, and you see theater, you see the “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” and then you walk in this room and you see certain stereotypes that Black folks are going through.

And then you walk in this room and see slaves coming to Africa on a plane by Miss Pat, who’s their flight attendant. Basically, that’s always been kind of in my own Zeitgeist and then I kinda suffered a depression in the summer of 2016. And that’s when Philando Castille, Eric Garner got murdered within a week of each other and the Dallas incident happened. I remember being at a 7-Eleven and I was standing next to this cop — we were both at the slushie machine — and when I reached up to pull the bar down, he grabbed his gun.

No way.

COOPER: …yeah, I had to kind of re-adjust. You know, people have been asking me these stories for so long about how I came up with it and I had completely forgot about that until when I talked about it. I was like, wait, that’s what it was, ’cause there was just this fear that like elicited and started me. After that, there was a sadness because I was like, what would have happened if he had just done what he wanted to do, right?

I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to sit in pain. I like to laugh through pain, I like to laugh over pain. And so I wanted to find a way to do that with my work. So I was just like, fuck it, we all going back to Africa. And then I had this drag queen whose name is Peaches, who is basically in charge of getting all these Black folks onto the plane, and Barack Obama is the pilot, and we see different people react to this last plane leaving the country — whether or not they’re gonna get on it.

DANIELS:  Well, I was looking for a writer, and you know, my voice is very unique. So it’s really hard to capture my voice. And often times, even in Empire, you see that: “Hey, what happened to the show? I’m confused, what happened?” Because writers take over.

The characters are there, but the voice is gone. Because it’s not like a movie. I have a life. And you have to pray that whoever the show-runner is will be able to capture your exact voice. And I have not been able to do that. It’s been very hard to do that on both of my shows. I mean, they come close to it, but it’s not my voice. But I’m really happy and grateful that I can find people can that come close to it. Jordan is my voice, and then some. He’s unafraid, and when I saw his work, I knew that I saw someone I could mentor. I knew immediately that I’d be able to throw him on a couple of shows. It was a fight, because he’s not in the union or anything, but it was worth it.

COOPER: He always says that! He always says, “You’re me if I woulda went to college.”

So when you’re writing this, are you thinking how you incorporate your Black experience with your gay experience in your writing?

COOPER: I think they kinda co-exist in a lot of ways because I’m both, unapologetically or kind of 100 percent. So I never even clock when my gay side is coming out or when my Black side is coming out, they just kind of co-exist in this really cool way. So that’s kinda how the play co-exists in a really cool way is like I don’t really think about it, I just let it live and let people do their own assessment of like where and what and how. But for me, I just like to do it.