Using humor, rich detail, and ample song, musician-writer-comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo tells stories of his mother, growing up, and searching, from Texas to Seattle to the Niger Delta. Susan runs through this Sunday at On the Boards.
Note: the full Seattle run is already sold out. You can try the wait list, beginning an hour before each performance. The show will run at the Public Theater in New York in January.
Who would’ve expected that the opening night of a show about family — its complexities, and loss, and a long-striving mother, and a notably absent father — would be 24 hours after my own (frequently absent) dad’s death? And yet, here we are. After learning of my family news, comedian Emmett Montgomery, who occasionally shares stories of his own mother’s passing just over a year ago, sent a kind note with a sage bit of insight: losing a parent is complicated.
It’s abundantly true. It’s sad and it’s all the other expected things, but for a great many of us it’s complicated.
It’s a rare show that unearths the complexities of family and loss as beautifully as Ahamefule J. Oluo does with Susan. Oluo’s heartfelt, layered new work, directed by Jennifer Zeyl, premiered yesterday at On the Boards. It runs through Sunday before moving to New York’s Public Theater in January.
Raised in Seattle, Oluo and his older sister (well-known writer Ijeoma Oluo) were born in Texas. Their mother Susan, a White woman from the Midwest, packed up and moved them west after the children’s father left and returned to Nigeria. Oluo was a month old when his father left; and, as if to signal the end to that chapter, the father promptly began a new family in his homeland. Born 10 months after the father left, Oluo’s half-brother would become a link to the part of Oluo’s family he never knew.
The generations-spanning narrative Oluo weaves in this 90-minute show is a bit about his father, and a bit about Nigeria. But it’s called Susan for a reason — and rather than telling a story of loss and the left behind, Oluo focuses on the many facets of his mother: the woman with the adventurous spirit; the Black Angus Karaoke Contest first-prize-winning singing voice; the will to make do for her children as her own dreams were cast aside; and the string of men who habitually took her attention away from them, including one she’d haul them all the way up the peninsula to go visit. (As Oluo describes, “As nice as prison was, there was one day I didn’t feel like going. It was my birthday.”)
Susan is rich in storytelling and musicality alike. At the top of the show, beautiful, swelling horns give way to a style that’s midway between stand-up and storyteller, as a lightly self-deprecating Oluo wows with noble acts of courage (fleeing fireworks and leaving his family in the dust) and rousing marital success (divorced twice by age 27). (Now in his 30s, he’s married a third time. His wife — who’s mentioned but never by name in the show — is best-selling author Lindy West, who co-wrote Susan.) His comedy bits sprinkled throughout do heavy lifting toward larger themes, in subtle ways. On notions of home and othering, for example, his funny (but too-true) “four types of hello” signal different stages of gentrification in Seattle’s historically Black neighborhoods, in which long-time residents become outsiders; they contrast nicely with the welcome Oluo received in his father’s village from people he’d never met, which in turn contrasts with the suspicion and racial othering (he’s a White man in Nigeria, and a Black man in the U.S.) he’s met with in town.
Oluo’s delivery in Susan is a style that might best be described as a narrative cabaret, a mixture of music and stories with a connecting arc running through it. He’s surrounded by two powerful singers and a seven-member band (of which he is one) that runs unusually deep in the horns section: trumpet, sax, trombone, and sousaphone, plus bass, keys, and drums. Throughout, Oluo does double-duty, hopping easily between microphone and trumpet; singer-songwriters okanomodé soulchilde and Tiffany Wilson take up the mics, vocals soaring, whenever Oluo plays.
The set and lighting are clean but cozy that takes us somewhere familiar, feeling at times like an intimate jazz club with a (mercifully light) hint of smoky haze wafting through. Stage lights come from 12 clear orbs suspended with dim bulbs, reminiscent of the 13 chandeliers suspended in a recent new work at Pacific Northwest Ballet. It’s a lovely effect.
In Susan, Oluo doesn’t try to force contradictions into a simple narrative, nor does he belabor their lack of neatness. Rather, he seems to thrive on the contradictions, the messiness, the complexities. He allows nuance to hang there in bare, unstated facts: that for many of us, family and home really are just complicated.
In Oluo’s hands, they make for a beautiful show.
Though Oluo’s father died years ago, his mother is very much alive. Read about Susan’s take on her son’s work here (Crosscut).
Susan runs through 12/8 at On the Boards, in Lower Queen Anne. Tickets are $32 (wait list day of show only); info here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.