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Theatre in Review: Susan (Under the Radar/Public Theater)

Photo: Haley Freedlund Naomi Ishisaka

Susan is the kind of show for which the Under the Radar Festival exists: an unclassifiable delight. Our host for the evening is Ahamefule J. Oluo, "spelled exactly how it sounds," he notes with a grin. Oluo is a jazz trumpeter, composer, bandleader, and raconteur -- and what a story he has to tell: The subject of Susan is his family history, presented as a procession of bizarre episodes. Oluo notes that by the age of twenty-seven, he had been divorced twice; he was a father twice over at twenty-one. His third wedding was crashed by Basil, his Nigerian-born half-brother. Oluo's father, a Nigerian graduate student, abandoned his American family after seven years of marriage, returning to Africa and cutting off all communication; Oluo was a month old at the time. Noting that Basil is only eleven months younger than Oluo, he adds, "so you can do that math." As it happens, he also has a dozen Nigerian half-siblings about whom he previously knew nothing. Try topping that.

Susan is a scrapbook of memories, many of them detailing a childhood marked by poverty and menace in Section 8 housing near Seattle. "After me and my sister, the most successful person from our apartments is a bartender who doesn't do cocaine anymore," Oluo says. As mothers go, Susan-- who struggled to educate herself and earn a living -- was both heroic and an agent of chaos: Oluo recalls finding her savagely attacking a female roommate with a plastic baseball bat. (Admittedly, the victim was a sadist who abused her disabled child, but still.) "How does it feel?" Susan asked as she administered her blows. The same question informed a legendary family story: Discovering that Oluo and his sister had gone out, leaving the apartment's front door wide open, Susan burglarized the place, seeking to terrify her kids into behaving. The tell that it was all a ruse, he says, lay in what she chose to take: a set of cheap speakers, some chewed-up plastic action figures, and the family dog.

More seriously, Susan was a magnet for inappropriate men. Oluo recalls family visits to Omar, a prisoner, who was Susan's romantic pen pal. Ultimately, "Omar proposed via collect call," Oluo says. He adds, "Omar still had years left on his sentence. It was more like getting a family on layaway."

The other thread of Susan involves Oluo's trip, with Basil, to their late father's hometown in Nigeria, an area so dangerous for outsiders that going there required hiring a set of armed guards. The visit features a number of rude awakenings, not least the realization that having grown up with the burdens of race in America, the biracial, light-skinned Oluo wasn't seen in Africa as black. "I went all the way to Nigeria to get away from white people, only to become one myself," he admits.

A piece about finding grace amid disorder and betrayal, Susan is informed by audio sequences in which Oluo interviews his mother. Whatever went down in the past, they sound today like co-conspirators, gleeful over having survived impossible circumstances. They also share a wicked -- and, I would guess, saving -- sense of humor. Onstage, Oluo is a distinctive storyteller who, having observed life's myriad absurdities, simply hangs them out to dry, giving us time to notice the craziness hiding in plain sight. "There are lots of ways to tell that you live in a gentrifying neighborhood," he says, using as an example the proliferation of pet-supply stores. He cites one near him with a sign in the window advertising "chicken snacks." He adds, "You know, for when your chicken is hungry...but not for a full meal."

Best of all are the musical interludes, composed by Oluo with lyrics by okanomodé and Tiffany Wilson, who also provide the vocals. Not directly related to the text, they nevertheless are gorgeous and deeply felt, with melodies that sound like dawn breaking over the Manhattan skyline, spreading sunshine in abundance. The eight-member band, including Oluo on trumpet, fills the room with pleasure; they also provide abundant evidence that Oluo -- now happily married and close to his daughters -- has found in music a healing balm.

Co-written with Lindy West and directed by Jennifer Zeyl, Susan has a simple, sensible design package, including Zeyl's set (dominated by a strip of kente cloth and some hanging globe lamps), lighting by Robert Aguilar (making effective use of sidelight), and solid sound design by Matt Starritt.

The script is a little scattered at times and there are stories about which one would very much like to know more: For example, whatever happened to Omar? But Susan packs a potent surprise ending, rooted in the title character's bad decision -- at the behest of Oluo's father -- to give up her budding musical career. (In one of the show's most affecting stories, Susan slays at a Black Angus Restaurant karaoke contest while Oluo and his sister camp out in a nearby booth, eating leftover food supplied by a friendly waitress.) I'll just say that what follows may be the most touching rendition of "Send In the Clowns" you've ever heard.--David Barbour

(13 January 2020)

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