Ahamefule J. Oluo Uses Comedy and Music to Tell Dark, Difficult Stories

Growing up, Ahamefule J. Oluo found solace learning how to play the trumpet, and making jokes as a stand-up comedian. As an artist, Oluo has honed his practice combining these two talents into unique artistic performances. His Creative Capital Project, Susan, premieres at On the Boards in Seattle, December 5-8, and at Under the Radar Festival in New York, January 8-13—the performance weaves together Oluo’s original music and comedy to tell a difficult story centering around his mother. When Susan was abandoned by her husband, a Nigerian doctoral student who left her with few resources, she raised two children in Seattle on her own. The story is a tangible crystallization of how race, class, and health issues affect people all over the world every day.

We spoke to Oluo as he was preparing for the show.

Alex: Can you describe Susan as you’re thinking about it now closer to the premiere?

Ahamefule J. Oluo: It’s a performance consisting of music, stories, and comedy—the stories come from my mom’s life, a journey of mine to Nigeria, gentrification, and the cost of living. The show is called Susan, after my mom, and originally the impulse to make it came about when I was working on my last show Now I’m Fine. I started noticing at that period of time there were a lot of shows about dads who weren’t present in their children’s lives. I thought about how much we (myself included) talk about men even if we’re talking about them in unflattering ways—it still ends up being the focus of our work. I started thinking about my other parent and what her life actually was raising us on her own. Sometimes the best stories aren’t the most sensational stories. Sometimes the best stories live within what we have grown to think of as mundane. So, I just started thinking about stories about my mom, and how they paralleled stories in my own life, and it seemed like a show.

The project itself is pretty straight forward: stories and music, which is very much in line with my last show. For my own work, I personally like to keep things streamlined like that. While there’s definitely internal concepts that I think about, I don’t try to manufacture something that isn’t there. It’s just about letting the actual words and sounds speak for themselves, presenting them as beautifully as possible. The process has really been to refine and refine, doing a ton of standup to build up material, and doing a ton of storytelling shows. Then, I take the stories that are about various things—some of them about my mom, some are about aspects of my life, or jokes about what it’s like to be alive in 2019—and what ends up in the show is what feels right.

Maybe it’s not always easy to present that in a clear narrative arc, but if you work intuitively and you find connections and paths through the work, you could end up with a really cohesive piece that’s more interesting in ways than if you just engineered it.

Comedy has a specific formula: you have to make people laugh, and that’s something specific to that art form. But it is also something that, when you understand the mechanics of it, you understand that comedy isn’t necessarily about humor, but about laughter.

Alex: I saw Now I’m Fine in 2016 at the Public Theater in New York, and I knew you were working on this other show because Creative Capital had just announced that you received an award for Susan. What has happened in the last three years?

Ahamefule: A lot of the time is spent essentially doing bad standup that no one likes because you have to figure it out. I spent a couple of years working on these jokes in various environments. Meanwhile, the music has come along pretty naturally. Some of the pieces of music are things I wrote a long time ago and felt appropriate for this; others are specifically composed for this show. It just takes time, and I especially don’t like to try and push things too much, or sit down, for instance, and write seven songs. I like to let things happen naturally instead of thinking of myself as someone who actively creates. I just keep my antennae out, and, understanding the feeling I’m trying to achieve, capture anything that resonates with the tones, which feel right for the emotional impact of the show.

We just did a couple of work-in-progress shows, and I now know how much work I have left to do on it, but I think that there was a definite sense of—even though there were things that weren’t worked out—emotional cohesiveness. Even if people didn’t completely understand the show, since it’s not completed, they understood the intended emotional impact, and they felt that. I like to take chances when I’m building things, or in the process of constructing, but I really don’t like to take chances with my finished work. That means that everything has been tested eight different ways before it ends up on that stage for the On the Boards premiere.

Alex: You must have a unique way of working just because of all the different disciplines you’re juggling. You mentioned you are developing and testing material in a comedy club, then writing music. How do you balance all those different processes?

Ahamefule: It helps that my particular brain doesn’t make distinctions between music, words, shapes, and colors. I’m blessed and cursed with a brain that thinks of all of those things as the exact same thing. Sometimes a song sounds the same as a joke feels to me. I follow the same process so I don’t really have to change the way that I approach all the different crafts, except for the fact that there are specific rules to each one.

Comedy has a specific formula: you have to make people laugh, and that’s something specific to that art form. But it is also something that, when you understand the mechanics of it, you understand that comedy isn’t necessarily about humor, but about laughter, and creating that turn that causes the involuntary reaction of laughter. I think that you can find there are similar aspects of music. There are certain things that turn the gears in someone. It may not be as clear cut as laughter, or as obvious as seeing someone physically convulse because of what you said. But, you can sense that turn in the person, you can sense that activation of something.

I think that comedy is nice because it has such a clear cut goal. You can understand the mechanisms better, and then you can apply the same things to making music. Obviously I don’t want people to laugh at the music, but I want people to have the emotional equivalences of laughter when they hear it.

Alex: I’m not sure if this is just a New York thing, but I have been adjacent to this scene of artists who are doing standup comedy more or less, but it’s different—it doesn’t always have to be “haha” funny. It can also be interesting, or thought-provoking, or controversial, or absurd. I’m not sure if that kind of art practice exists in Seattle. So when I saw Now I’m Fine, I was expecting that—artistic comedy—and I was surprised when I realized, Oh, wait! This is actually, consistently funny material.

Ahamefule: Yes, and that’s important to me!

Alex: I wonder, as you’ve traveled doing this kind of show, does the reaction to the material change in different regions?

Ahamefule: I was really shocked with the last show how well the jokes worked in New York. I was really nervous about that. There are so many great comics in New York and people experience great comedy all the time there, but I found that a lot of the stuff was actually more effective in New York than it was in Seattle. I always think of things I’ve written that I’m sure can work and will have an amazing reaction on stage. I can be so sure about that after having done standup for 15 years, and then I go on stage and it just doesn’t work, or get any reaction. It doesn’t mean anything to anyone but myself. There’s no way to know that until you try stuff in a purely comedy environment, like a real comedy club or comedy show, and not a theater environment which can be a lot more forgiving to that type of thing.

People going out to a comedy club have this brutal expectation that you are going to make them laugh, and if you don’t do that, you are failing. You can have a theater show that has comedic elements, and if a few people don’t laugh that much, they will still view it as a good show. Comedy doesn’t work like that. It’s really brutal. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, there is no way around it.

So, I think that since I started out working comedy clubs as a club comic makes a big difference. I learned how to work things out in that very tough environment with high expectations—and sometimes with low expectations in the way that if you try to do things that are too difficult in that space, they are not gonna work, and there are things that are too complicated that require too much attention. So, there is this line of making sure the jokes are strong enough, making sure the wording is tight enough, and making sure you are getting from place to place in an efficient manner. I’ve found without fail that if you can get something to work in a comedy environment, it will work that well or usually better in a theater environment, because people don’t have the same expectations.

So, that’s what I mean when I say that I don’t like to take chances with the final work. There is still risk of performing not as well as I’d like to perform, but in terms of the actual materials I’m going in with, the process I go through really ensures that at least the mechanics are going to work. There can always be an off night or a weird crowd, but for the most part, I feel comfortable that I can travel through most of the liberal oases of the country and be effective at what I do.

Alex: I was reviewing material published about you, and there is this narrative that you are really good at turning painful moments into comedy or theatrical pieces of art. Is that still something that resonates for you with Susan?

Ahamefule: Yes I think so. I hope that I’m good at that. It seems to just be I’m drawn to doing that. It seems that I want to talk about painful things. It’s important for me to recontextualize my own life trauma as humor—maybe that’s something that I personally need. It’s not that this type of thing is my niche. When I write jokes, these are the things I write jokes about. And when I think about the stories that I want to tell, these are the type of thing that they are.

Alex: You have kind of cornered this market of making brilliant music with wonderful comedy, but I am curious if it’s difficult to find funding or acceptance because of exactly this unique way that you combine disciplines. Is that an issue you face?

Ahamefule: To a certain extent, I think I face that internally. I face those issues in a sense that, if I wasn’t doing all this other stuff, I would be a lot better if I played the trumpet. Or, if I dedicated myself to doing comedy all the time, I would definitely eventually kill myself [laughs]. Those are just sacrifices that you have to make, I think at a certain point.

I just had to accept that part of the sacrifice is that I don’t know if I will ever be a virtuoso at any one specific thing, because it requires your full attention, as it should. There are people working really hard on a specific thing and they get really really good at it. I’m most respectful of that, but for my own sanity, I accepted that that wasn’t going to be me. My personal path had to deal more with aligning various things that work together from my own specific point of view, and that’s actually what I do. I try to have as many skills as I can to implement that, but it’s been a journey to not think of myself necessarily as a comic or musician, but someone who does this thing.

Alex: However, there is this tradition of showmen or band leaders that also do standup—I mean from the early sixties, and the fifties, and before.

Ahamefule: Yes, if you go back and listen to Frank Sinatra’s “Live at the Sands,” he does standup on that record, and he’s really good at it!

Alex: Are there any other people like that that you look to for inspiration?

Ahamefule: Growing up in Seattle, I always looked at Reggie Watts as someone who is really amazing in both music and comedy. He came up on the Seattle scene. He’s someone that I looked at as an example for what’s possible.

Alex: Reggie Watts is an amazing musician, in addition to being a comedian—I really love some of his recent club stuff.

Ahamefule: Exactly!

Alex: Has Creative Capital been helpful in the process of making this work?

Ahamefule: Absolutely. Especially now that we’re getting everything up and running, Creative Capital has been really helpful. But also, as I’ve been working on the work, the organization has been helpful. Just to give you one example, I met Joseph Keckler who’s another Creative Capital Awardee from my same year, and we really hit it off at the Artist Retreat. He came to Seattle, and since it’s kind of my town, I was able to set up a show and I did some work-in-progress, and he performed. And Joseph Keckler is someone who makes interesting music but also who is genuinely funny and whom I respect from a comedian standpoint as well.

So, the actual connections with other artists that I have made through Creative Capital have been really great, but also great in terms of seeing what all these amazing people are doing.