Ahamefule J. Oluo (Photo Credit: Kelly O.)
By Sarah Downs
In “Now I’m Fine” , part of the Under The Radar Festival at the Public Theater, author, composer, director and protagonist Ahamefule J. Oluo explores themes of loss, despair and rejuvenation. Accompanied by a band and a chamber group, he alternates between storytelling and music to chronicle the various milestones in his life. The work is very personal, asking that we join Oluo on a vulnerable journey. It is a generous gift to be allowed into someone’s deeper self and thoughts. Oluo is charming, with a delicate sense of humor and appreciation for irony. His stories are interesting and at moments quite compelling, but they are overshadowed by musical interludes that are too numerous and too long. A lot of the music is dissonant, and much of it is played at a lugubrious tempo. I wish I could like the band more, because the players are so appealing and have a genuine warmth. However, I felt their playing was uneven and too loud, especially the brasses. They have the potential to light things up, as demonstrated in the few jazzier moments, where they played much more effectively as a group. Oluo has more success with his compositions for the chamber group, who play consistently well. Several of the evening’s more poignant moments take place to the accompaniment of their strings.
Singer okanomodé sings with passion and sometimes to great effect. He is clearly an artist, appearing in a variety of costumes with long skirts that hint at cultural references to other places, other times, but with his own unique style.
“Now I’m Fine,” billed as a ‘grand scale experimental pop opera,’ is certainly grand scale something, but I am not sure what. The play is burdened by its self-conscious determination to be experimental. It’s trying so hard to be unique – to scale new heights! to break barriers! — but ‘opera’ doesn’t just mean lots and lots of singing and ‘experimental’ doesn’t just mean that everyone wears black. A dark stage, a band, a singer in bad light on a bare wooden platform. If the aim is to do something bare bones then they need to commit to more bare bones. Turn up the lights and go full-on black box. If the aim is to be theatrical, turn down the lights and put on a show. Hanging in the middle between theatrical styles, between song and dirge and amidst a jumble of competing musical vignettes leaves us hanging. This piece has a lot of merit and some interesting music, but it needs editing, pacing, firmer direction. The creators need to clarify for themselves and us what choices they are making, and that choices are indeed actually being made. As it is, it does not feel as if anyone is driving the car. We are left in free fall, creating a muddy evening of theater which at moments is very touching, but in the end unsatisfying.
“Now I’m Fine” written by Ahamefule J. Oluo and Lindy West; music, stories and direction by Ahamefule J. Oluo; lyrics by okanomodé; production manager and set design by Jennifer Zeyl; lighting design by Brian Engel; musical editors Brianna Atwell and Jon Hansen; presented by the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theatre, Mark Russell and Meiyin Wang, co-Directors. Run time 100 minutes, no intermission; www.nowimfine.com
Playing Tuesday January 12 through Sunday January 17 at the Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St. Tickets are $25. For tickets and show times go to www.undertheradarfestival.com or call 212-967-7555;