Were I a native of Seattle, I would be more familiar with Ahamefule J. Oluo, the comedian and musician behind SUSAN: a part stand-up, part memoir, part live music performance which appeared as an in-process work at this year's Time-Based Art Festival (TBA). In 2015, Oluo received widespread acclaim for Now I'm Fine, his comedic memoir jazz musical that explored his tenuous relationship with his absent father. SUSAN is a follow-up to that piece, focused on Oluo's mother, described in the show notes as "the white, Midwestern wife of a Nigerian chief."
In our TBA preview, I referenced an episode of This American Life called “Put a Bow on It,” as a try-before-you-buy example of Oluo's memoir comedy, so it was surprising to hear that same story open the show. There's an interesting storytelling style crossover between Oluo and his wife, author and Shrill executive producer Lindy West. In moments when Oluo paused, looked up toward the audience and said, "but suddenly..." to break up the narration, he carried an identical intonation to his wife. And since Oluo is a practiced comedian and public performer, it made me wonder which of them came up with this speaking signature. In any event, it works.
As expected, SUSAN was one of the most approachable performances at TBA. Where most of the festival's works required a willingness to stick it out through a challenging piece of art, Oluo's musical was pure enjoyment.
Oluo's memoir stories were charming, illustrative, and—at least once—like having your heart poked very hard with an index finger. Sheesh, that stings. But SUSAN's musical arrangements were where the true fire sparked. Oluo stepped back from the mic to fill out a jazz quartet (Oluo on trumpet, Skerik on saxophone, Haley Freedlund on trombone, and Jerome Smith playing sousaphone and trombone), supported by an upright bass (Marina Christopher), drummer (D'Vonne Lewis), keyboardist (Josh Rawlings) and two vocalists (Tiffany Wilson and Okanomodé Soulchilde). Those are a lot of names, but I couldn't fail to note them. They're all strongly part of the performance, especially the vocalists. At one point Wilson's singing prompted Mercury News Reporter Blair Stenvick to whisper, "I would watch a whole show of just her."
Each of SUSAN's songs carried an artistic weight that either balanced or outdid the story it followed, building as the performance unfolded, and peaking with the second to last song—which directly follows a story of Oluo riding through the backroads of Nigeria with cars of hired police and musclemen. YEAH, it sounds cool, huh? Well, you'll have a chance to see SUSAN in its completed form this December (Thurs Dec 5- Sun Dec 8) at Seattle's On the Boards.
One last thing about this performance of SUSAN: At this stage in the development of the show, SUSAN does not quite deserve its name. The anecdotes are too much about Oluo and other men in his family. Even that aforementioned heart-pokey story seems uncomfortably focused on a man his mother dated and brought into Oluo's young life. Surely he knows better than to try to sketch a portrait of a woman that way. But this criticism comes from the show's unfinished state, and I—perhaps being so charmed by Oluo's stage presence—have full faith that the show will be tremendous come December.
We're wrapping up our 2019 TBA coverage, but we have a few more things to say! Read our reviews and critical impressions at: portlandmercury.com/tba