I was tearing up within minutes of Obehi Janice being onstage, hearing her tell the story of a strange and lonely uncle who “hated” himself to sleep with the words, “I’m a piece of shit.” Suddenly, I’m welling up. Who hasn’t felt this way? But this show sets out to be a healing balm and the formula is familiar: misery loves company, and there’s plenty of both to go around. This Obie award-winning “cabaret-style event” written by Young Jean Lee but which the compelling and versatile actress Obehi Janice makes her own, takes on the most inescapably tragic condition of our existence: “We’re Gonna Die.”
That sobering truth is raised to exultation by Janice and a rock band in jeans and sneakers. As she stands center stage in her yellow shirt emblazoned with a sailboat, I felt my child-like self setting sail, vulnerable but finding solace in seeing we’re all in the same boat. “We’re gonna die” hits you smack in the face and heart, mind and soul, with the ridiculously awful truth that no one gets out of here alive.
Janice fixes you with her even gaze and deep calm voice and begins to tell stories, personal anecdotes delivered unvarnished, straight to the audience. Why? She explains, “to share comforting things that helped me and to help you feel less lonely when you’re in pain.” I can’t wait for this warm blanket– could she really have something to help?
The stories begin with the slings and arrows of childhood’s outrageous fortunes: little girls who shun you, parents who unwittingly crush you; eventually there’ll be lovers who dump you, hideous betrayals by spouses who humiliate you, random accidents that maim you, and lingering painful diseases that kill you. And if you live to a ripe old age, it gets worse. As her mother’s grandmother tells it– and Janice sings it, “You will lose your mind and everything will hurt all the time. All your friends will die and you will be a burden to the world.” I’ll have another drink please, which is possible since we’re in Oberon, and the cafe tables are full of merry makers crying but also laughing in their beer. That is the show’s strange alchemy. Things are so bad, it’s funny– and soothing.
The show is short and the tales escalate in severity pretty quickly, punctuated by a series of simple songs, some better than others. But one of my faves goes something like this: “Who do you think you are to be immune from tragedy? What makes you so special that you should go unscathed?”
Indeed. Why waste time assuming things should be any different? It can only lead to madness. Instead, join in the blessed denouement with Janice and band leading a goofy dance of death as the entire audience chants in unison, “We’re gonna die” over and over again. It WAS comforting– and life affirming– sharing that bloody universal truth with every other human being on the planet. Let’s party like it’s 1999! Prince would have approved. See “We’re Gonna Die” before you do–a New England premiere directed by Shawn LaCount and presented by Company One & American Repertory Theater’s Oberon through April 29. Time is short.