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‘Mama Got A Cough’ is a Zoom comedy for the COVID-19 era

Jordan E. Cooper’s latest work provides an essential coronavirus therapy: laughter

There are plenty of minuscule daily accommodations needed to just make it through each day of the coronavirus pandemic. But is there anyone so pervasive as the varied ways we’ve found to make do?

Don’t have a mask or a sewing machine? It’s OK! You can make one out of underpants, or even socks.

Can’t find yeast at the grocery store? Make a sourdough starter!

And when you’re playwright Jordan E. Cooper, and you can’t mount a play on a stage, with lights, a set and a live audience, you make a Zoom play, call it a short film and publish it on YouTube.

Mama Got A Cough, a 15-minute short that Cooper wrote and directed, captures the elements of the ridiculous that come with living through a global pandemic in 2020. It is art that doesn’t just make do with limitations, but MacGyvers them into strengths — a common characteristic of the best independent film and theater work made with limited resources.

Mama Got A Cough takes place entirely during a Zoom call with one family’s matriarch. Her children, Casey (Danielle Brooks), Yolanda (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Ashley (Brittany Inge), Malik (Dewayne Perkins) and Jamel (Marcel Spears), have assembled online to convince her to go to the hospital because she may have contracted the coronavirus.

Driven by Cooper’s sharp writing, Mama Got A Cough is bursting with zingers that encapsulate what it’s like to live — imperfectly — during a viral lockdown. Most of its dialogue consists of five siblings roasting each other. Malik is a single young adult hiding in the bathroom during a “quaran-turnup,” while Jamel shows up with a new girlfriend, Heather (Amber Chardae Robinson), whom none of his siblings recognize. Brooks’ character has notched a DUI, yet cannot walk her mother through connecting to Zoom without taking some generous, exasperated sips of wine. And Ashley is holed up with an older white boo who never appears, but whom Mama (Juanita Jennings) refers to as a “Republican on Viagra.”

Cooper’s writing is dense with observations of living while black. When Mama proclaims that going to the hospital is useless because no one will care about her there — a recognition of the racial disparities in health care that make COVID-19 even deadlier for the black people who contract it — Ashley suggests Mama take her elderly white neighbor with her.

“Look, good things happen when you hustle white people,” Ashley said.

Rather than working against the restrictions created by the coronavirus quarantine, Mama Got A Cough works with them, down to recreating the starts and stops that come with a dubious Wi-Fi connection. Misa Qu’s clever editing retains the trademarks of the Zoom call, leaving the actors to shine.

With just minutes on the screen, Jennings creates a familiar character. She may have coronavirus, but damn it, she’s going to get her wig straight. Jennings naturally pivots from a self-pitying, irascible and technically inept old person to someone who is afraid of dying alone.

“Like Ms. Mary. Died last week with nothin’ but tubes by her side,” Mama said mournfully. “No one there to look her in her eye, hold her hand, nothin’.”

Cooper, the playwright and actor who wrote and starred in Ain’t No Mo’ at New York’s Public Theater, co-produced Mama Got a Cough with Brooks, who is best known for her role as Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson in Orange Is the New Black. Brooks has also turned in impressive performances as Sofia in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple and as Beatrice in the 2019 Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing. Together, they’ve added spice and rigor to a form (the Zoom screen) that doesn’t appear to offer much on its face, unveiling one possibility for theater’s survival on the internet that goes beyond releasing recordings of past productions or table reads of scripts.

It’s a stressful time to try to create anything, especially decent writing. But playwrights needn’t beat themselves up over their inability to draft the next King Lear, which Shakespeare may have penned during the Black Death. Mama Got A Cough is a testament to what’s possible with a keyboard, an internet connection and a few friends. And it provides heaps of what remains an essential, priceless elixir: laughs.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.