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December 6, 2014 at 11:26 PM

Ahamefule J. Oluo: A true talent emerges at OtB

Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson writes:

Ahamefule Oluo by Kelly O.

Ahamefule Oluo by Kelly O.

With his On the Boards show “Now I’m Fine,” Ahamefule J. Oluo may have just discovered a new art form.

Call it standup-big band-autobiography.  Or what a collaboration between Duke Ellington, Spalding Gray and Sun Ra might have been like.

But it’s not necessary to define exactly where Oluo’s  extraordinary two-hour piece exists on the performance continuum.  Just be happy if you scored a ticket to the show’s  sold-out  four-night run at On the Boards.

A Seattle-raised jazz trumpet player, writer, composer and probably a lot of other things, Oluo in this remarkable event tells engrossing stories from his past in the company of a top-notch 17-piece band, including a string quartet and a singer decked out like a shaman.

The swinging, pulsating big band music is marvelous, from the full-bodied and ripe crescendos of the horns and percussion, to the bittersweet reveries of the strings (composed by Evan Flory-Barnes, also a wizard on string bass). 

As a jazz composer, Oluo has a true post-bebop gift for shifting sonic textures, intoxicating rhythms and lush harmonies. The instrumentals and the vocal interludes (by the flamboyantly dressed singer-lyricist okanomodé) are so densely sensuous, and well-performed, you can lay back and luxuriate in them.

By some alchemy, the musical environment is just right for the candid, often very funny, and sometimes agonized stories related in “Now I’m Fine.”

The suavely-suited and utterly disarming Oluo comes forward to deliver these  tales with with a comedian’s timing and an expression of bemused wonderment, as if he’s still amazed that such things  happened to him.

Like having a black Nigerian father who returned to Africa and abandoned his white wife and two very young children in Seattle, who suddenly re-enters the adolescent Oluo’s life briefly in a heart-breaking phone call.

Or enduring a horrific reaction to an antibiotic that caused Oluo’s flesh to literally melt off his face.   Or being very mixed up about and surprised by the meaning of his African name.

Fortunately, all this personal sharing does not slop over into self-pity or masochistic braggadocio.  The humor is droll but not snarky, thanks to Oluo’s  hip-sweet sincerity.  

This  storyteller is a seeker, and his revelations are really about self-definition, about overcoming a sense of invisibility and unworthiness, about “finding a way to feel okay when you know things are not okay.”  He doesn’t give us a road map to that end, just his own experience and his music.

In the rapturous finale of  “Now I’m Fine,”  a show that  Oluo co-wrote with Lindy West, one is struck and sated by the generosity of spirit and wealth of music in the show.   Now a hard-working artist in his 30s, it seems Oluo is no longer hunting for a safe place to be himself.  He’s found one, and wants to take you there.

“Now I’m Fine.”  Through Sunday, Dec. 7, O\n the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; sold out (ontheboards.org).

Comments | Topics: Ahamefulo Oluo

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