In theory, each life contains stories worth telling. But some lives seem to have a surplus — or maybe all lives are equally interesting, and some just find the right tellers.
Either way, musician and comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo is one of those people who can successfully scour his years on earth (most of them in Seattle) for storytelling treasure. And, because he’s a composer and musician (specialty: jazz trumpet) who has played a lot of gigs with a lot of people, he can write and arrange music, then put together a phenomenal band to play alongside his otherwise-solo performances.
His first experiment in this form, “Now I’m Fine,” discussed (among other subjects) being born to a white, Midwestern mother and a Nigerian father who promptly left for good, as well as one emotionally and physically excruciating year — exemplified by a mystery illness that dissolved the skin across his body. “Fine” started at Town Hall, then went to On the Boards, the Moore, the Public Theater in New York and beyond, and was made into “Thin Skin,” a not-yet-released film co-written by Charles Mudede and Lindy West.
Oluo describes his new show, “Susan” (at On the Boards Dec. 5-8), named after that Midwestern mother, as “a tragedy about the most comically optimistic person on earth.” Also co-written with West (they’re married), it follows growing-up themes, plus a voyage to his late father’s village in Nigeria and reflections on being a 37-year-old musician living in a household with his two teenage children “where we all pretend we don’t know that everybody else smokes weed.”
Excerpts from our conversation follow.
Were you surprised by how “Now I’m Fine” took off?
Totally surprised. I was shocked by the cumulative impact of the stories and music together — instantly at Town Hall, looking out at the crowd, I was like: “Oh. This is what I do now.”
They’re emotional stories.
I do try and write in plain language — I don’t try to specifically emotionally manipulate people. But I am someone who is greatly emotionally impacted by art, comedy, these things. They’ve definitely, during periods of my life, kept me alive.
But I have absolute respect for people who don’t want to do emotionally heavy art. It can often be — stupid! A lot of super-emotional art is real dumb. I try to make stuff that’s not dumb.
You say art kept you alive — what’s an example?
When I was a kid, my mom had been really obsessed with getting us out of this horrible, Section 8 (federally subsidized) apartment complex in north Lynnwood — a lot of violence, a lot of drug addiction, a really bad place to grow up. She’d been searching and searching for a house and finally found one that took our Section 8.
My mom had thought we’d gotten out of a bad environment, but Bothell at that time was so white, so conservative, so Christian. It became more diverse later, but at the time, my sister and I were in a school with eight black kids, maybe 10 kids of color total. So this thing my mom had been dreaming of was a total nightmare for us. I had no friends, I was in middle school, all my emotions and hormones were coinciding with this. I’d had bad experiences at that crappy apartment complex, but didn’t know it would be so much lonelier and worse moving to Bothell.
At one point, my cousin — well, let’s just say that through not my own doing, but through some possibly not-legal means, I wound up getting a portable CD player. Because we definitely didn’t have money for that. I would go to the Bothell library — it had a big jazz CD collection. I was in there one day, listening on my headphones, and heard the most striking thing: Charles Mingus’ “Oh Yeah,” and specifically the track “Ecclusiastics.”
I was at this point in my life of not feeling anything, but remember being shaken awake by that song, which I still think is one of the most beautiful things ever. Just a few seconds into it, the whole band slides up a note together — everyone glisses up a half step or whole step, this kind of crazy maneuver thrown into the middle of a melody that was still sensible, beautiful, logical, but had these weird twists in it — I just listened to it over and over and over again. I didn’t have friends or anything else to do. I just listened. I don’t want to think about me not finding that then. About not having that.
How’s your mother taking the show?
She’s been incredible. There are some things that are very unflattering about my mom in it but, taken in aggregate, it’s clear — the overriding thing is that this is a beautiful person. I’m not trying to prove that point. It’s just that when we take all these things together, this is a beautiful person who’s lived a beautiful life in a way some of us wouldn’t consider beautiful. But there are moments in the show a vast majority of parents would not be OK with their kids talking about.
I talk about things my mom considers some of the worst decisions she’s ever made. When I started, I asked her: “How do you feel about things not reflecting you in a very positive way?” From the beginning, she said: “I just want you to be honest.” The only guidance she gave me is to not talk about the (expletive) that’s going on in her life now.
She came to a work-in-progress thing we did, sat in the front row — in the center! Which I chastised her for during the show: “Mom, what the (expletive) are you doing right there?!” Which actually turned into a magical moment.
There’s a taboo when talking about parenting: The one thing you can’t talk about are times you put yourself before your kids. But it’s a thing that every parent does — I don’t care who you are.
My mom is the most loving, obsessed-with-her-children parent, but when a man was in the picture, it (expletive) sucked. That was her Kryptonite. And so I thought it was important to talk about those things in myself, too. Moments where I’m genuinely not proud of what I did — not a humblebrag, not a “in a way, it was kind of the right thing.” No. I did the wrong thing.
I tell a story about a time my family and I ended up in a very dangerous situation and I — I ran away. I did not step into my paternal role on that occasion. My panic got the better of me, things went down and I can’t go back in time and change it — except for keeping that kind of thing in the past.
I’ve been parenting my entire adult life, since I was 19, and I wanted to talk about the parts of parenting that are less palatable.
This show isn’t for her in a tribute kind of way, but a show for her to enjoy. This is a thing that is built for her to like — it just happens to be about her. She’s coming to all four nights at On the Boards.
“Susan” by Ahamefule J. Oluo. Dec. 5-8; On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $10-$75 (sold out, but day-of waitlist available); 206-217-9888, ontheboards.org