Shortly after doing my first comedy set at UW RETROs open mic I was fortunate enough to see a show that changed my conceptions of stand up comedy as a genre: Susan at On the Boards. The show was headed by stand-up comedian, trumpet-player, and composer Ahamefule (pronounced aha-may-foo-lay) J. Oluo (o-lu-o). He named the show after his mother. This show was deeply heartfelt and personal. In it Oluo recounts the complex relationship he had with his parents, how his mother dealt with the absence of his father, and how it shaped him as an adult. It was a great mix of music, storytelling, and stand up comedy. His goal with this show was to find a common understanding with the audience, because we all go through hardship in life. In an interview, Oluo said, “you make it more about [the audience] by making it more about you … because at the end of the day people are the same.”
The music was a vibrant composition of instrumental jazz and vocal performances. On stage alongside Oluo were Jerome Smith on the trombone and sousaphone, Jason Cressey also on the trombone, Skerik on the saxophone, Marina Christopher on the bass, D’Vonne Lewis on the drums, Marina Albero on the keyboard, and two vocalists: Okanamode, and Tiffany Wilson. While Oluo would take most of the stage time with his captivating storytelling, as he changed topics the music helped set the mood as the show went on.
A major theme of the show was family: Oluo is the child of a white woman and a Nigerian man, who left before he was born. In his father’s place were several other male role models that influenced him as he grew up. However, he’d eventually learn that he has a half brother in Nigeria. Unfortunately, Oluo’s brother comes into his life bearing the news of their fathers passing. With this knowledge Oluo decides to go to his father’s grave in Nigeria, and trouble ensues.
As interesting as that segment of the story is, it’s not what defines Susan. While Oluo’s father went back to Nigeria before he was born, and lived out the rest of his life there, Oluo was growing up with his mother in ‘80s Seattle. In the show, he explored the fallacies of the American Dream through his experiences, and how he came to an understanding with his parents, as he’s become a proud parent himself.
The show’s humor was dark, self-deprecating at times, and effectively helped the audience build empathy for Oluo and his family, all the while poking at bigger topics such as biracial identity, race relations, marriage, parenthood, the American Dream, the prison industrial complex, and so on. As a member of the African diaspora, I related to his struggles with culture shock moving between Africa and America. As an entertainer myself, I admired his engaging stage work, and the ingenuity of the composition of story, comedy, and music. Olou wasn’t alone in the endeavor of putting on this show, and just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a dedicated collective to put together a show like this. Special thanks to On the Boards for investing in contemporary performing artists, and making shows like Susan possible.
Susan ran at On the Boards, December 5-8, 2019.