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Under the Radar 2020: Susan and Constellations

Ahamefule J. Oluo presents his new theatrical concert, while Nick Payne's Broadway drama is revived in Mandarin.

A scene from Susan at the Public Theater.
(© Haley Freedlund/Naomi Ishisaka)


Four years ago, Ahamefule J. Oluo introduced audiences at the Public Theater's Under the Radar festival to his dad in Now I'm Fine, a jazz opera that blended extended sections of solo storytelling with a wall of sound provided by a 17-piece big band. Sam Oluo came to the United States from Nigeria, fathered two children with Oluo's American mom, and then went back home. The younger Oluo had only one encounter with his dad before his death, and it was a disappointing one at that.

Now I'm Fine explored the damaging and lingering effects of parental abandonment. Oluo's latest Under the Radar entry, Susan, continues the story and reframes it around his mother, who goes from Midwestern wife with dreams of a singing career to impoverished single mom dealing with Section 8 housing and a revolving door of abusive boyfriends. At the same time, it details a trip Oluo took to his father's homeland in an effort to meet the family he never knew.

Oluo is a true theatrical polymath: He's a writer, comedian, bandleader, composer, and trumpeter. Like Now I'm Fine, Susan features bleakly humorous stand-up-style monologues followed by new and visceral jazz compositions performed as a sort of commentary. Oluo joins the band on trumpet, and while they're only a handful of players, the sound they produce is unreal. If you love being showered with music by a terrific brass band, this is your show. Glamazon singers Tiffany Wilson and Okanomodé add to the intensity with their ferocious vocals.

Susan, cowritten with Oluo's wife, Shrill author and producer Lindy West, and directed by Jennifer Zeyl, is less cohesive than Now I'm Fine. It lacks a complete dramatic through line, which diminishes the emotional power of the story and makes it feel like it just stops instead of ending. It has the potential to be as powerful as his past piece, but in this state, it's more like a series of half-finished thoughts building to a catharsis that's not quite there.

However, Oluo is so charming that it almost doesn't matter. He really knows how to draw an audience into his stories, and that's impressive in its own right. If I could watch and listen to him for hours more, I would be just fine.

A scene from Constellations at La MaMa.
(© Yang Yang)


In Nick Payne's Constellations, a beekeeper and a physicist meet, fall in love, break up, get engaged, and succumb to illness over and over in different permutations. Payne's 2012 drama, which premiered on Broadway in 2015 with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, is a theatrical examination of parallel-universe theories, where we simultaneously exist here and elsewhere in slightly altered versions that make slightly altered decisions.

The first New York revival of the play, part of the Under the Radar festival at La MaMa, hails from Beijing's Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental and director Wang Chong. This Constellations is far different from the one we experienced at Manhattan Theatre Club several years ago, however, and not just because it's presented in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Chong's Constellations is basically a film that's being shot in front of us. The two live actors, Wang Xiaohuan (as cosmologist Liu Mei) and Li Jialong (as beekeeper Du Lei) aren't acting for the audience; they're delivering their performances to 12 different cameras situated around the circular perimeter of the stage. We watch the action on a movie screen to get the full effect of their facial expressions, body language, and emotions, as they're quite often not facing the spectators.

The performers do a fine job of delivering cinema-size performances, but Constellations isn't a play that benefits from that. Every exaggerated laugh, every extreme close-up on their eyes betrays the smallness of the text and disconnects us from the sentiments Payne is expressing throughout. It's easier to connect to the live hamster that runs on a wheel at center stage for the duration of the production. This hamster does first-rate work with the hardest job.

In a parallel universe, this Constellations might be more emotional, but in the one I'm living in, it wasn't nearly sensitive enough to fully succeed.