Call yourself an artist

Obehi Janice PHOTO: Evgenia EliseevaObehi Janice talks about collaborating in theater, making her own career success and taking ahold of the character in We’re Gonna Die.

By Jake Stepansky ‘17

I first encountered performer-writer-comedian Obehi Janice when she appeared as a panelist on You’re the Expert, a WBUR radio quiz show that brings together comedians and experts in esoteric fields. The theme of the episode was psychiatry for pets; even knowing nothing about the topic, Janice lit up the dingy basement theater/recording-studio with her warmth and wit. Naturally, I looked her up afterwards and read rave reviews of her electric solo performance in Company One’s touring production of Young Jean Lee’s Obie Award-winning play We’re Gonna Die, a cabaret-style blend of stand-up, music and theater. When the show was at Joe’s Pub in New York City, the New York Times called it “personal tales of life’s brutal verities.” Back in April, I was bummed to have missed the show when I was in Cambridge. But now I have a second chance: We’re Gonna Die will have an encore run October 4-8 at OBERON, American Repertory Theater’s second stage. I had a chance to chat with Janice about making her own work, making a career in the arts and making We’re Gonna Die. An edited version of our conversation follows. 

Obehi Janice and the band in We're Gonna Die PHOTO: Evgenia EliseevaWhat is We’re Gonna Die about?
It is about loneliness. It is about the particularly human quality of feeling alone. Every day, we think, “I’m a human. Why am I crying? Or why did that person leave me? Or why am I, even in a big group of people, alone?” We tend to group people based on whether they’re an introvert or an extrovert, but the biggest thing that has come from audience reaction to the show is how it really is a little disorienting, because people haven’t had to consider how alone they felt in a day. So I think that the show is about loneliness, and I think the form definitely subverts the cabaret in a really smart and entertaining way.

What was the process like of making We’re Gonna Die?
Company One programmed the show before I signed on. I actually didn’t audition; hearing that they had thought of me was really cool. This was the first time in my professional career where somebody said, “Yeah, I really, really, really want to work with you.” That meant a lot because I’m the only person besides the playwright herself, Young Jean Lee, who has performed this show. Logistically, I worked with music director Steve Sarro really intensely for a long time. The whole thing is on Spotify, with Young Jean singing with her band, but I actually stopped listening to her singing it months before rehearsal. I needed to learn how to sing like myself. I also worked really closely with [director] Shawn LaCount to figure out the essence of these monologues and who this woman is, since she’s definitely not me. I proudly describe our rehearsal process because I think it worked.

What’s your most exciting story from the tour?
There was nothing weird or Spinal Tap-y, but what was really cool was that I helped curate the tour with Susanna Jackson, who does marketing at Company One. What we did, essentially, was combine my love of self-producing – which is where I cut my teeth, doing my own work – and Susanna’s awesome eye for venues and music. Logistically there was this nice core of us who knew people in Obehi Janice PHOTO: Evgenia Eliseevathe city. Knowing that there was no set, I said, “We should go to these places.” My favorite was the show in Zumix, which is a spot in Boston that serves young people through the arts. Mostly, we grew as a company. We said we want to connect with people, and we will come to you. 

What’s next for you?
I’m blessed because I work full-time as an artist. I’m a freelancer, I do voiceover, and write and direct, so in that way I’m always working on the next gig. I’m not really doing anything now in theater because I’m prepping for a trip abroad to East Africa as a part of my grant with Company One. I am a resident actor, which means that I’m partnered with the company to grow as an artist. Part of that is I’m going abroad and meeting collaborators there that I’ve wanted to hang out with forever but couldn’t afford to. I’ll also be starring in The Gift Horse by Lydia Diamond at New Rep in the spring. I write scripts for screen. I’m working on creating good web content, and I’m always trying to figure out comedy stuff. So I’m grateful for what’s next right now. 

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in the performing arts
Make your own work. Be your own boss. People will take notice – they will. It immediately legitimizes you when you start calling yourself an artist, and you just realize that you should not rely on people to make you who you are. This doesn’t mean that you have to go out and start a theater company. What I mean is you literally can say “I’m putting on a play,” and people will come. It’s that easy. It’s almost not even that difficult. If I hadn’t created my own solo show FUFU & OREOS in 2009, I wouldn’t be where I am. I know for a fact that We’re Gonna Die is a direct result of me having a show that I wrote and performed. Seven years later, I’m headlining this awesome show at OBERON. I couldn’t have planned that, but I knew that the seeds of creating my own work were the cause.