This article appears in print in the March 2020 issue as part of the Spring Arts Preview feature. Click here to subscribe.
Squinting into the stage lights at On the Boards last August, Ahamefule J. Oluo glanced quickly into the audience, then dropped his chin to his chest, hard, and laughed. “Mom, did you have to sit right there?” he said, training his eyes on the front row, dead center. A loud, infectious laugh came right back at him: Of course she did. This was the first public performance of Oluo’s show Susan—the show’s namesake wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and she’s rarely missed a performance since. After a sold-out premiere run at On the Boards last December and a critically acclaimed January run at The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in New York City, Susan comes home to play the Paramount Theatre on April 11.
Susan builds on Oluo’s first autobiographical work, Now I’m Fine, a fusion of original music, standup comedy and storytelling that centers on his father, who left their family when Oluo was an infant, as well as a horrific, baffling illness that plagued Oluo in his 20s. After spending so much time telling the story of his absent parent, Oluo realized he’d been overlooking the parent who’d stayed. Using his same hybrid form, now further refined, Oluo began crafting a story about the young woman from Kansas who was left raising two small children in poverty in the Seattle suburbs after her husband went to visit family in Nigeria and never came back. But, as Oluo makes clear in his telling, Susan’s story isn’t about what was lost. It’s about what was there.
“My mom raised us in a very chaotic environment,” Oluo tells me, not long after Susan’s On the Boards success in December of last year. It’s 11 a.m., and he’s still groggy after a terrible night of sleep precipitated by his sometimes-overpowering anxiety, but he perks up and into his funny, thoughtful self. “There was a large [extent to which] my sister and I had to raise ourselves.”
Oluo’s tumultuous upbringing is one thread of Susan, which weaves together stories from Susan’s youth, Oluo’s gentrifying Seattle neighborhood (“You meet a lot of new Jeremys!”) and a 2016 trip to Nigeria that Oluo made with a half-brother he’d never met until the brother showed up in Seattle for Oluo’s wedding. Parents and children figure heavily; the only joke repeated from Now I’m Fine is about Oluo getting a vasectomy at 22 after his second daughter was born (it’s funny when he tells it). Oluo admits he’d rather not publicly share his low points as a parent, which I won’t spoil for you here, but to ignore them would be a lie of omission. “This show has so many parallels between me being a parent and my mom being a parent, that if I’m going to share one of my mom’s worst moments as a parent, I should be willing to do the same about me,” Oluo says.
Describing the individual elements of Oluo’s artistic output is easy: He composes music, plays the trumpet (among other instruments), and writes and performs both standup comedy and narrative storytelling. Harder to quantify is the artistic alchemy between these mediums that comprise Oluo’s large-scale shows. Cowritten with Oluo’s wife, author Lindy West, and directed by Intiman Theatre artistic director Jennifer Zeyl, Susan is suffused with a kind of artistic umami that’s hard to pinpoint: melancholy standup, musical storytelling, a funny, emotionally honest whole that’s much more than the sum of its parts. And he’s not above a dick joke.
Tiffany Wilson and okanamodé in Susan at On the Boards. Photo by Haley Freedlund.
Casually dressed and slightly stoop-shouldered in the manner of many very tall men, Oluo talks from center stage, jokes punctuated with the self-effacing chuckles of a standup comedian, painful stories left to land in silence. When the show’s language switches to music, he’s the trumpet player in an exceptional seven-person band, joined by equally impressive vocalists okanomodé and Tiffany Wilson. Susan shifts between story and song, intercut with recorded audio interviews with Susan herself, ebullient, hilarious and candid. Oluo recorded these conversations with his mom years ago, shortly after he’d been awarded a prestigious Creative Capital grant to develop Susan in early 2016, but long before the show felt real enough to affect what he and his mom revealed to each other.
“It’s so easy for a show like this to get fake, it’s so easy and tempting to try and construct a narrative,” he says. Resisting that impulse is nearly impossible in a work of memoir, but hearing mother and son chatting and laughing at each other on those recordings, you realize just how perfect that front-row interaction was. Judgment has no place in this complicated, shared life story. Get on board with that and you can laugh, remember and regret along with them.
If you ask Oluo when he realized he might actually be good at the trumpet, he’ll tell you he’s still waiting for that particular epiphany. He started playing in sixth grade on a horn his mom bought with her income tax return, and he began gigging as a teenager through the jazz program at Mountlake Terrace High School. His first paid job was playing at an Elks Lodge at age 15. “It was fine,” he says, “but I had that feeling of Oh, I want to do this. So, I started thinking about putting a band together and actually gigging when I was 16. Even from that age, my whole thing was: I want to play with the best players.”
His own music bona fides, however, are impressive: Oluo has played seemingly every spot in town, from beloved jazz hub Tula’s (RIP) and the Royal Room to the Capitol Hill Block Party and the Neptune Theatre, either on his own or with Industrial Revelation, the hugely popular, genre-expanding local jazz group he played with for more than a decade. He’s played on Macklemore tracks, and released a stellar solo album, The Honorable Chief, in 2016. (He’s also been on the comedy circuit for more than 14 years. I highly recommend a YouTube video in which he and longtime comedy writing partner Hari Kondabolu discuss hipster Seattle racism, but let’s not get off track.)
A long-loved photo of Susan Oluo. Photo courtesy of Oluo.
Even so, Oluo thinks his real talent is identifying talent. “I feel like I can say that because it’s not really a compliment to me,” he says, with a laugh. “In general, my artistic strength is logistic strategy toward an artistic end. Never ‘How are we gonna get money?’ or ‘How are we gonna get more gigs?’ but ‘How are we going to make this really special?’ When people are operating out of nothing but mutual respect, it creates a euphoric environment.”
That euphoria breeds creativity. “We love and respect each other, and when that’s your baseline, you can really try stuff,” says Susan director Zeyl. “I’m not saying that we don’t have egos, but the trust that we have trumps all of that.”
Zeyl, who also collaborated on most iterations of Now I’m Fine, was “gobsmacked by the music” when she saw that show’s first public performance at Town Hall in 2012. Musical virtuosity initially drew Zeyl to Oluo’s work, but it was the way he treated his collaborators that landed her on his team forever. “He has more integrity than almost anyone I’ve ever met in my life,” Zeyl says. “He cares so, so deeply for every single person that’s involved in the process.”
The process involves a lot of people, particularly when it comes to Oluo’s massive projects, like his live shows and Thin Skin, the movie adaptation of Now I’m Fine, which Oluo stars in and which he cowrote with West and filmmaker and longtime Stranger writer Charles Mudede. The film is currently in postproduction. After their Paramount Theatre performance, the Susan company heads to Los Angeles for a run at contemporary art center REDCAT. Performances at other venues around the country are in the works, as are plans to record a show album.
“[The projects] that require me to extend my brain to its furthest potential...that’s when I’m absolutely happiest,” Oluo says. “Obviously there are horrible aspects, but working on a movie for 16 hours a day is when I’m at peace internally—well, to an extent; I still have panic attacks, but I feel purpose. To be working in a way where I’m like, ‘I’m good at this, I know how to make this work, I know how to run this operation in a way that people are happy to be there, and we’re making something really good’—for me, that’s huge.”