It takes bravery to decide that your story is worth telling. It’s even more admirable to have the courage to tell your story onstage with a 16-piece orchestra. That’s what Ahamefule J. Oluo did at The Clarice in his final scheduled performance of Now I’m Fine. This pop opera, co-written with his wife Lindy West, chronicles the most difficult period of his life.
In a stirring monologue punctuated with bursts of original music, the Seattle-based musician recounted his woes with humor and candor, from the trivial – “When I was 17, I got chewing gum stuck in my ass hair” – to the grave – divorce, illness, and death. Such a performance could easily seem egocentric or self-serving, but Oluo’s magnetic personality and dry sense of humor balanced out the musical drama.
His name, Ahamefule, which means “Let my name not be forgotten,” was bestowed on him by his father, a Nigerian man who left him, his sister and his American mother when Oluo was just one month old. He felt pressured to live up to this name his whole life. His father’s death a few years after their only conversation sparked a train of unfortunate events. Oluo and his wife divorced, he became a broke single father, and he was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that caused his skin to disintegrate, literally robbing him of his creative voice. Without music and comedy to help him cope, Oluo fought to “keep a tiny scrap of [his] dream alive.”
Oluo’s band had a great rapport and built a dynamic wall of sound. Standouts included the animated Naomi Siegel on trombone and the virtuosic Evan Flory-Barnes, who played bass in the brass band and string quartet and also arranged the string quartet parts. Singer okanomodé Soulchilde had some beautifully tender moments, especially in “Minuet,” an emotional piano ballad, but the reverb on his mic seemed excessive in such an intimate theater.
In the first act, it was sometimes difficult to understand how Oluo’s often discordant jazz fit in with his wryly comedic narrative. The connection between music and narrative became clearer in the second act, when Oluo described an event of which he couldn’t bear to speak. He stood with his back to the audience as a string quartet told the story with a mournful, disjointed dirge that evoked the sense of things falling apart. This break in the narrative gave me and other audience members the space to reflect on our own personal struggles.
“I’m not aiming to tell you this crazy thing about me, but awaken similar feelings in you,” Oluo told The Stranger in 2014. As I watched this show, I reflected on my own (sometimes failed) attempts to keep my dreams alive and felt emotional. But I felt hopeful watching Oluo conduct the show’s epic final number “Reverie,” frenetically waving his hands and bouncing up and down before taking his own musical moment to shine. Though being “fine” is a temporary state, it sure can be a beautiful one.
Now I’m Fine played one night only on Friday, February 17, 2017 at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Dance Theatre – 8270 Alumni Drive, in College Park, MD. For tickets to future Clarice events, visit their website.