New York — On his first day exploring New York City near his dorm at the New School, Jordan E. Cooper happened upon The Public Theater. The signs outside promoted a new musical called Hamilton. “I took a photo and thought ‘I should see that,’” Cooper says, “but I couldn’t afford a ticket.”
Now, only four years later, the Hurst native has already had some experiences at the Public over which he’s still pinching himself. He met one of his idols, Stephen Sondheim, in the lobby; and after two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage saw a reading of his play Ain’t No Mo’, she not only Tweeted about it—she invited him to lunch.
“I’m having a world premiere at the same time as there’s a world premiere from Suzan-Lori Parks!” he says excitedly, referring to Parks’ White Noise at the Public. To boot, his play is nestled in a season that boasts new works by Luis Alfaro, Simon Stephens, and Tim Blake Nelson.
Ain’t No Mo’ opens Wednesday, March 27, after several weeks of previews. Not to overstate the significance, but his first major professional production is happening at one of the country’s most important theaters—not bad for a 24-year-old from Hurst, Texas, one of the “Mid-Cities” between Fort Worth and Dallas.
The play is described as a “vibrant satirical odyssey portraying the great exodus of black Americans out of a country plagued with injustice. In a kaleidoscope of scenes of the moments before, during, and after this outrageous departure … [it] explores the value of black lives in a country hurtling away from the promise of a black president.”
That such a young writer has made it to the storied stage of the Public isn’t surprising if you know his history. Cooper, whose early work was seen in North Texas in church and high school, and at both Jubilee Theatre and DVA Productions, has been writing and producing plays for about two-thirds of his life.
Yes, since he was 8.
Finding His Stage
As a kid he would put on plays in his living room while wearing his mom’s wigs, first realizing the power of entertainment at age 5, when watching his parents laugh at SpongeBob SquarePants on TV. From ages 8 to 13, he wrote and directed his own short plays at a Baptist church in North Richland Hills (“the audiences got bigger, and the plays got raunchier and I had to find a new space”). His middle school didn’t have a theater department, so he started a drama club. When he arrived at L.D. Bell High School, he auditioned for plays and musicals but noticed that, as a black actor, there wasn’t much opportunity in a drama program dominated by white students.
“At a fall audition, me and this other girl were the only black kids there,” Cooper says. “It was a play called Sparks in the Park, and the director wanted to give us something, so she cast us both as shadows of the main characters. We mainly moved furniture and props.” Interestingly, that play, by Noble Mason Smith, is about a young playwright entering a playwriting contest and learning that his voice—rather than emulating the work of established writers—is most effective.
Cooper started writing his own plays and convincing the drama faculty to let him stage them at the school. An early work was called The Catch, which was partly inspired by the experience of playing a shadow to white actors in Sparks in the Park. His mother, wanting to foster his love of theater, started taking him to shows at Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre, the second-oldest black theater in Texas (after Houston’s Ensemble Theatre). In 2009, after seeing a play about Mahalia Jackson starring Sheran Goodspeed Keyton, he befriended the local stage veteran, who had begun her own company, DVA Productions. That led to a fruitful relationship with DVA and Jubilee.
In 2010, at age 15, he contributed a song to DVA’s musical The Man I Love. In 2012 he starred as a sexually abused teen in Ya’ke Smith’s movie Wolf (currently streaming on Amazon Prime), starring alongside Mikala Gibson, Irma P. Hall and Eugene Lee. In 2013, DVA produced The Catch; the TheaterJones review noted that it was an ambitious undertaking, but needed “more time to grow up.”
That’s also the year in which Cooper caught my attention, when Jubilee workshopped Cooper’s one-man play Masked at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Sanders Theatre. The work, about a Stepin Fetchit-esque black actor named Jansy who performed minstrels shows in blackface, starred another local actor who has since found fame in New York: Major Attaway, who has now been playing Genie in Broadway’s Aladdin for two years.
Masked showed promise; in my year-end review, I called Cooper a theater artist to watch.
That same year, Cooper acted at Jubilee in the original musical Sam Shade, and helped assemble a holiday revue called Jubilation. In 2014, he played a musician in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Jubilee, and the theater produced a one-weekend run of his play Fly, Black Boy Fly, naming Cooper its playwright-in-residence.
In 2016, after Cooper had moved to New York for The New School, DVA produced Masked, which starred Lewis Anderson as Jansy.
“Sheran was the first person to produce one my plays,” Cooper says. “I was so grateful that those people came into my life.”
Respecting the Journey
Looking back at his work as a teenage playwright, he can only appreciate how much he’s grown.
“I do think that Ain’t No Mo’ is one of the first plays that I claim,” says Cooper, laughing. “It’s my voice unapologetically. …It really was a play I didn’t think anybody would touch. I didn’t think it was producible, and several theaters [I sent it to] told me that it was not producible. It was just me being me.”
He credits his fortune to the initiative he took, even before he arrived in the city. He read everything about New York theater and new plays, and followed and connected with playwrights, producers and actors on social media.” He submitted to festivals and had a few short works produced across the city.
He had several full-length plays in his head, but the one he couldn’t shake turned into Ain’t No Mo’.
“I started working on it with my friend—I call him my ‘mid-wife’,” Cooper says of New School colleague and Waco native Stevie Walker-Webb, who directs Ain’t No Mo’. “When I started writing this play, I said ‘brother I don’t know what this is, but it’s in my spirit and I have to get it out.’”
Cooper is in the play, too, as a drag queen named Peaches. The cast also features former North Texas resident Ebony Marshall-Oliver, known for roles at Jubilee Theatre (Neat, In Real Life, The Color Purple), Theatre Three (Memphis), and other local theaters; along with Marchánt Davis, Fedna Jacquet, Crystal Lucas-Perry, and Simone Recasner. (At Sunday matinees, standby Hermon Whaley Jr. plays Peaches.)
Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis (who just won the Margo Jones Award, which shares its namesake with the website you’re reading now), says “Jordan Cooper is a meteor of a writer, young and brilliant and astonishingly imaginative.”
The play was born in 2016, as news of black men being killed by police dominated the news cycle.
“I would walk around the city, feeling depressed … I started writing these smaller plays, which is a part of this bigger play,” Cooper says. “It’s a conversation that I didn’t have for myself…A lot of times I’m writing because I need to ask myself a question and I don’t necessarily have the answers to the question. This play was harder to write than anything I have written.”
“I started writing it during the [2016 presidential] election,” he continues. “The night [of the election] I got a big bottle of Barefoot wine and started going into a big hole. New York was so quiet the next morning. On the subway it was unusually quiet…even the rats were quiet. Then I thought ‘we’re bigger than this, we’ve been through worse than this.’”
The play found its way to the Public’s literary team, and was given a staged reading in March 2018, two months before Cooper was to graduate with his BFA in playwriting. The audience included Lee Daniels, Sanaa Lathan, and Nottage.
After the reading, Nottage Tweeted “Just got schooled by an immensely talented young writer named #Jordan Cooper.” Daniels brought Cooper on as a story consultant for the TV series Star (Fox) and held a private reading of Ain’t No Mo’ with Marlon Wayans, Common, Lena Waithe, Naomi Campbell, and other celebrities in attendance.
For Cooper, it has been a whirlwind, and has led to other projects that he can’t announce yet.
But for now, he’s grateful that the first theater he saw on that walk in New York’s downtown, which was promoting a groundbreaking show he couldn’t afford tickets to, has given him this chance. The lesson he’s learned is similar to that of the main character in Sparks in the Park, to whom Cooper played a shadow in high school.
“I walked in [the Public], I didn’t think they wanted me, I didn’t think they wanted my work,” Cooper says. “I thought they wanted to change me or the work in some way. But they were asking me to be even more of myself.”
» Check out this fantastic video interview with Cooper. At about 16:25, Cooper has a brilliant response to the question many have asked him, "why do you write?"