“Prince just died, so I’m really emotional,” said Obehi Janice at the start of our recent phone interview, which occurred shortly after the news of Prince’s death began to circulate.
Janice is starring in the New England Premiere of Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die, part monologue, part indie-rock cabaret show about the one thing that we all have in common: death. Playing at Club OBERON through April 29, We’re Gonna Die is a co-production between Company One Theatre and the American Repertory Theater. Following the run at OBERON, We’re Gonna Die can be seen May 14 at Zumix in East Boston, May 18 at AS220 in Providence, and May 20 at Luna Theater at Mill No. 5 in Lowell. Additional dates may be announced shortly.
Lee’s collection of stories and songs centers on the isolation and loneliness that comes with being human. Most affectingly, in an eleven o’clock revelation of sorts, Lee touches on the idea of specialness: “I believe, deep down, with all my heart, that I deserve to be immune not only from loneliness and tragedy, but also from aging, sickness, and death,” she writes. “But I’m not special. I’m a person. And when you’re a person, all kinds of really terrible things can happen to you.”
It was oddly fitting, then, that my conversation with Janice about We’re Gonna Die took place on the day that Prince died. If people like Prince and David Bowie aren’t immune, then that doesn’t leave very much hope for the rest of us.
The show is as much a celebration of life as it is about the inevitable end that awaits us all and the surprising amount of comfort that comes from knowing that we’re all in this together. The Singer, as the star of the show is called, is played with impossible charm and megawatt zest by Janice and is joined by a tight four-piece band.
“I think that the question she’s asking is one that we don’t want to talk about in the theater,” said Janice, who had been a huge fan of Lee’s work long before We’re Gonna Die came along. “We’re all temporary, and she’s asking those hard questions about why we are all here. People feel brokenness and loneliness a lot. I feel like the show is a release,” she said.
Janice was recently awarded a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship grant, making her Company One’s resident actor. In addition to working with Boston Public Schools and mentoring young writers, she will travel to Uganda to attend the Kampala International Theatre Festival and Zimbabwe to train at the Zimbabwe Center of the International Theatre Institute.
“Getting the grant has definitely changed my life,” said Janice. “I felt really empowered to quit all my really crappy jobs and really become a full-time freelance artist. It’s really been impactful for my life as an artist in Boston.”
Clearly, she’s pretty special.
Director Shawn LaCount, co-founder and artistic director of Company One, agrees. We’re Gonna Die marks the first time ever that LaCount has offered a role to someone without auditioning at all. “Obehi is naturally a connector, a creator, an artist in the community in a way that jibes really beautifully with who the person at the front of this piece needs to be,” said LaCount. “Obehi is really a storyteller. She is, as we’ve come to find out, quite a singer. And of course, she’s an actor and a playwright. All of those things are really unique to the artist that is Obehi Janice.”
LaCount has been interested in Lee and We’re Gonna Die for a couple of years now (the show premiered in 2011 at Joe’s Pub). “I think the questions that she’s asking and the form in which she creates is some of the most interesting and forward-moving theater of our generation,” said LaCount.
According to LaCount, the show also fits in perfectly with Company One’s mission, which is “to bring lots of different people from different backgrounds and experiences into one space to grapple with socially provocative performance and to connect to one another.”
There is definitely a connection that happens at the end of We’re Gonna Die. At the end of the show’s bizarre, beautiful finale, in which the title song gives way to a joyous, quirky dance break, the audience is invited to join in on the chant-y refrain of “We’re Gonna Die.” An abrupt blackout ends the song, but the communal, shared experience stays with you long after. And good luck getting the song out of your head.
“It’s not about me, this is about everybody,” said Janice. “At the end, the audience is like, ‘What was that? We just did that together.’”
WE’RE GONNA DIE. RUNS THROUGH 4.29 AT OBERON, 2 ARROW ST., CAMBRIDGE.COMPANYONE.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.