Ahamefule J. Oluo's Comic Pop Opera Will Break Your Heart Open

There's a fine line between laughter and tears, and "Now I'm Fine" brings audiences right up to it.
A performance of Ahamefule J. Oluo's "Now I'm Fine."
A performance of Ahamefule J. Oluo's "Now I'm Fine."
Bruce Clayton Tom

You may not yet have heard of Ahamefule J. Oluo, but his story, the broad outlines, will be familiar.

He's the son of a white Kansan woman and a Nigerian man who met while his father was studying at an American university. After several years of marriage and the birth of two children -- Ahamefule and his sister Ijeoma -- his father returned to Nigeria. The two American-born children would never see him again. They rarely spoke to their father before he died.

If you've read Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father -- which Oluo has -- the similarities are striking, and he knows it. "It’s definitely not a thing that I have a problem with," he laughed when I brought up his biographical doppelgänger. "I love Barack Obama, man. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be the president so bad. I never really was someone who thought, 'Oh, I can’t achieve my dreams,' but at the same time there’s a moment when Barack Obama got elected where I was like, 'Wait, I could have actually been president? Like, that’s a real thing!'"

Kelly O

Having set presidential dreams aside, Oluo is putting his own distinctive mark on a very different world: musical theater. The Seattle-based musician's category-defying pop opera, "Now I'm Fine," will be staged at the renowned Public Theater in New York next month, capping off a decade of determined work to craft and refine the autobiographical performance piece.

"Now I'm Fine," which has previously been staged in Seattle, draws its unique flavor from Oluo's artistic background -- a jazz musician and a comedian, he's long worked at high levels in both forms. He's written with comedian Hari Kondabolu and told a tragicomic story about his father on "This American Life"; he's also performed as a trumpet player and conductor, including for the acclaimed Seattle jazz quartet Industrial Revelation. "Those worlds were completely separate for me for a long time," he told me. He's not a comic musician or a musical comedian -- he's just a comedian, and a musician, two artists in one person.

At significant moments, the 17-piece orchestra and vocal performers take over, seeming to strike a more feverishly dramatic tone with their clamorous melodies, yet somehow mirroring the emotions elicited by Oluo's overtly comical monologue. "Now I'm Fine" marries biting comedy and deeply-felt anguish simply, with the recognition that both simply exist in our lives.

I recently spoke with Oluo over the phone about the limits and possibilities of making art from personal experience, the Sisyphean task of creating a theatrical work without institutional backing, and the balance between joy and sorrow in both life and art:

When did you start working on the show?

The show is centered on the period of time when I was sick and my dad died. A lot of the material -- the music and a lot of the jokes -- really originated in that time. That was about 10 years ago. It’s been 10 years of slowly growing.

The show combines stand-up monologues and musical portions -- was that your original vision?

I developed the elements of the show independently. I developed the music on its own, I developed the stories on their own. I knew that both were incomplete. I just wasn’t aware that putting them together was what was going to complete them.

Working in theater requires a lot of resources for cast, etc. How difficult is that when you don’t have institutional backing? How did you negotiate that when you were working on this?

That’s always the toughest part. That’s the reason it takes 10 years. By the time this show received any institutional support, it was already built. It takes finding dedicated people who believe in what you’re doing and are willing to spend some time pro bono to allow the idea to develop.

The reality is, when we started rehearsing the music to the show, 10 years ago, it sounded bad. [Laughs] If that had been the final version of it, it just would have been this thing that wasn’t very good.

All of these musicians have been playing it for years. All of these people have been built into the show. The way that they play it, I think it’s a huge part of why it’s effective. So when we go to New York, we have to bring the people, because the people are the show, really.

A lot of shows are written down the line to be recast and performed down the line -- would you ever want that to be done with "Now I’m Fine," or is it more personal?

It’s very personal. I also couldn’t imagine doing it a thousand more times. It really is something where I want to know that each time I’m doing the show, there’s no barrier between me and the audience, there’s no barrier of me being jaded, or no barrier of me being sick of doing this, or no barrier of me being very tired and just wanting to get through the night. I want to feel 100 percent engaged every time I do the show, and if I feel like that isn’t happening, I don’t want to do it.

The show has a very unconventional alternation of comic monologue with very dramatic musical interludes. What sort of effect did you want this juxtaposition to have?

I think that I like balance. In the sense that the darker you go, the lighter you can go. The funnier you are, the more serious you can be, and it doesn’t seem overwrought. I don’t know that there was a conscious effort to balance serious music and funnier stories, but there was, I think, a conscious effort to stretch just as far as I could in the spectrum of emotion.

I believe that even though I can’t point to specific similarities between the jokes and the music, I know that when that was originating, there were similar emotions behind the jokes and the grand music. There is, to me, something cohesive about them.

Have you started working on another show?

I haven’t started actively writing, I haven’t started actively composing. I really like this format of having this large ensemble of music and then going small, just a person telling a story. I like this format. I’d like to explore what this format can do.

You mentioned that your musical style has evolved a lot since you wrote this show. A lot of the music is deliberately off-kilter or discordant -- how would you describe your style within the show?

I come from a jazz background, but I think the music in that show is very intentionally less jazz-based than a lot of what I do, and I think a lot of that comes out of discontent with jazz, and anger at an art form that I love, and wanting to, in my 20s, feel like I was part of modern music. I feel more comfortable exploring things that I know, now.

I feel like at that time, any time I wrote a pretty melody, I had to just slap as much dissonance all over the top of it as I possibly could to be OK with how pretty it was. But my lack of confidence adds something to that early stuff … it colors it in a way that’s interesting.

At one point, you describe an unspeakably bad thing that happened in your life, but without words -- only through a passage of music. Can you talk about that?

There are just certain things that for very pragmatic reasons have to remain private, and I think those things exist in everyone’s life. I also think that certain things are hard to explain why they’re so horrible.

But when I tried to just skip over it, it just didn’t feel right. Just because for me personally, when I think over that period of time and all the horrible things that happened, that is the worst thing. That is the thing that is, to me, the emotional climax. I can’t present that as the emotional climax, for the reasons I described earlier, but I need to process the whole story in order to deliver the fullest version of the story that I can.

I think that if I provide myself time to sit in my own personal knowledge of that and allow myself the time to reflect on the whole story that only I know, that somehow the gist of that information will be conveyed. The emotional information will be conveyed. It allows me to keep it honest. It allows me to give it the weight it deserves. It allows me to not sensationalize something that in my own mind doesn’t need any sensationalizing.

In society and a lot of art right now, extreme self-revelation is such a big trend, just getting everything out there, and making this conscious choice to say "there’s something about myself that I’m just not going to tell you" -- it’s a very specific counternarrative to that.

And it is really just a practical decision, as well -- it is just something I can’t tell people. I like things that are just straightforward like that. I think that the show is straightforward in a way, it’s music and talking. It’s like, baking bread is one of the hardest things to do, but it has three ingredients. I like those challenges.

There are some really awkward truths about living in a racially mixed family in your show -- what was it like for you and your family to have those come out in a performance?

My family is incredibly supportive. My mom, who I think gets the brunt of it, she loves it. I think the next show I make is going to be completely about her. My sister [Ijeoma Oluo] is a writer, and she also writes about very personal things, and it’s just a thing that in our family has never really been an issue. Between me and my siblings and my mom, we know all of the worst things that we’ve ever done.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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