With the official opening of Ain’t No Mo', Lee Daniels has added another role to his impressive roster, that of Broadway producer. The Empire creator celebrated its opening at the Belasco Theatre with a star-studded audience that included play co-producers Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union, Gayle King, Deborah Cox, Tamron Hall, Titus Burgess, Susan Kelechi Watson and Jeremy O. Harris.
Written by Jordan E. Cooper, the youngest Black playwright to ever have a production on Broadway, Ain’t No Mo’ cheekily asks one incendiary question: “What if the U.S. government attempted to solve racism … by offering Black Americans one-way plane tickets to Africa?” Comprised of several high-octane series of vignettes which are pieced together by Peaches, the gate agent handling the exodus and played by Cooper himself, the show has become one of the most sought-after tickets on the theater circuit.
EBONY sat down with Daniels a few days before the opening to discuss his move into Broadway, and what keeps him motivated to create content that speaks to the Black experience.
EBONY: Did you wake up and say, "I think I want to do Broadway?"
Lee Daniels: I didn't know what I was doing when I did my first movie. I never produced a movie like that. And I didn't know what I was doing when I did Precious. I didn't know what I was doing when I did television and Empire. And I certainly don't know what I'm doing now. But I do what the Spirit tells me to do, and what I think the culture needs. And sometimes I get a lot of heat for it because people don't understand it all. But I think it's worth it in the long run. At the end of the day, I have an obligation to Black, to queer, to others. I was out hustling it as a gay artist and I didn't realize I was alone, trying to get people to see my work. When I see Jordan, it's my obligation to make sure that the world sees his work.
Is this an opportunity to change the culture of Broadway, with a show deeply and unapologetically rooted in Black culture and symbolism?
The idea that Broadway is not meant for us, even with greats like Viola Davis and Denzel Washington: this is meant for us. I knew that it would be disruptive in that way, and I'm really proud of that. I think this will bring us to the theater, and I think that this is the way it’s going to change. I think this is going to do what Empire did for television.
The show does have moments that may make people a little uncomfortable. The opening vignette about former President Barack Obama features some very colorful language.
Let me tell you something. My cousins are a little younger than me, they came to see it and they were like, “I don't know about that beginning.” I think that what you have to understand is that it's satire. Black people, it’s OK to let loose and make fun of ourselves, white people do it all the time. Once they understood that, it was OK. It's going to bump some people, but that's what disruptiveness does.
You got a lot of big projects going on right now. How do you handle it all?
I am literally going from here to my edit room for a movie [Exorcism] starring Monique, Andra Day and Glenn Close. It's the scariest thing you will see. I want people to be scared, so scared that they have to come to the Lord Jesus Christ. I'm scaring people to Jesus! I'm doing a limited series for Hulu about Sammy Davis Jr. and I’m hiring writers, then jumping from that to overseeing my television shows. It's a lot. But I'm just trying to do what God put me here to do.
Ain’t No Mo’ is now playing on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre.