As actor/writer Obehi Janice makes last-minute adjustments in rehearsals—a week away from the premiere of her forthcoming one-woman show, “FUFU & OREOS”—her ability to fluidly and dramatically transition between characters elicits delighted laughs from the play’s director, Rebecca Bradshaw.
After a few minutes, Bradshaw asks her to run through a scene again. “Father” and “Uncle” sound too similar, so Bradshaw asks Janice to alter her voice and her body language in order to differentiate the two characters more clearly. After a pause, Janice takes it from the top, and out of nowhere, she creates someone completely new. Bradshaw is floored.
“You have so many people in your back pocket!” she exclaims. “That’s crazy! Do you see how crazy that is?” And Janice must have some inkling, since in “FUFU” she portrays almost 30 distinct individuals.
“I don’t think about that, ’cause if I do, I’ll be like, ‘I’m not doing it! It’s not happening!’” Janice says with a laugh.
In 2009, while still in college at Georgetown University, Janice began writing “FUFU & OREOS” after noticing the lack of original plays about Nigerian-American women. “I was just like, ‘I’m gonna write one by myself, and then I’ll make it about myself,’ which is the worst idea ever,” she says, laughing.
Janice speaks with an easy candor and grace, tempered with an endearing brand of modest self-deprecation that charmingly diverts attention away from her radiant talent. While most people would balk at the idea of performing their intimate, personal history onstage, Janice embraces it. And for her, it always had to be this way.
“I believe in the power of voice, and I think that when you’re doing a solo piece, and when it’s good, it really pushes our perception of what it means to be one human being,” Janice says. As for where the wellspring for such a project is found, Janice says it’s a hyper-awareness of her identity, and a clinical depression diagnosis in 2009. “That’s what the inspiration is,” she says. “How [to] find power through words when you’re not speaking, not interacting.”
Bradshaw seconds the idea: “It’s definitely a play about finding your identity and finding your people,” she says. “I definitely hope that it connects with a lot of people who have had similar experiences, because I know that a lot of those people are here, especially in the city, and [theirs are] voices we don’t really hear onstage that often. We put some stories onstage, but this is a really modern and really contemporary portrayal of a multicultural experience.”
That experience is one in dire need of real representation, and authentic depictions of it are becoming more the norm. For younger audiences who are seeking stories from multicultural playwrights, people who look like them or share their histories, theater is becoming the one place where they can find it with increasing regularity. When a woman of color is onstage, declaring her truth, there is no room for reinterpretation, no space for ambiguity or an excuse for “retelling” within the frame of white recasting—a plight that still befalls so many narratives in television and film.
“Our country is changing. Our country’s consciousness is changing. I think what we’re understanding is that the idea of white normativity is very destructive,” says Janice. “[This] is responding to that.”
And while Janice seems to be no stranger to casually dropping profound statements about the importance of representation (“Theater will die if people who look like me don’t go see it,” she says), her words are nevertheless true. Boston remains a place where diversity is abundant, but getting mainstream stages to produce authentic reflections of that diversity continues to be a challenge. And if the warm reception of Company One’s production of Aditi Kapil’s “Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy” last year proved anything, it’s that audiences are ready for more.
“What I hope is that people who see my play will write. I just want people like me to write. I want them to be encouraged to make themselves visible,” Janice says passionately. “I actually want you to be a little changed when you leave the theater. That’s my goal.”
BRIDGE REP PRESENTS: FUFU & OREOS. DEANE HALL, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. FEB 6 – FEB 27. FOR SHOWTIMES AND TICKET PRICES, VISIT BRIDGEREP.WORDPRESS.COM