As a title, Now I'm Fine does a lot of heavy lifting. It implies an ordeal, lets you know it's in the past, and even tells you how it ended—from setup to spoiler in three short words.
This autobiographical concert by musician and writer Ahamefule J. Oluo (think of it as a solo show with 16 backing musicians, including the glistening, dexterous voice of okanomodé SoulChilde) is, in fact, a record of an ordeal that descends to depths that are as startling as they are grim. But Oluo has a stand-up comedian's heart and deploys jokes like a team of hopeful hot-air balloonists trying to give a little lift to a story that just keeps getting heavier.
An early version of Now I'm Fine, performed at Town Hall in 2012, begins on a city bus where a passenger whose face has "the kiss of meth" asks Oluo why he seems familiar. ("I don't know," Oluo replies in a mock-prim voice. "Are you perhaps a patron of the fine arts?") Then, Oluo says, the guy figured it out. "He was like, 'I know where I know you from! We both went to Mountlake Terrance High School.' And then he said, as if it were completely appropriate: 'You were the kid with no friends! ... You had no friends—like, none at all!'"
"How unnoticeable do you have to be," Oluo wonders to the crowd, "to be noticed for being unnoticeable?" Then he tells a story to illustrate his social standing in high school—some girls had organized a day for students to wear pink-triangle pins to show their support for gay students. Oluo supported the idea in theory, but as an outcast and insecure sophomore, he wanted nothing to do with it. Then he saw Johnny, the high school's "gay kid"—regularly picked on and beat up—walking down the hall wearing his pink-triangle pin.
"I decided right at that moment that I could no longer be a coward," Oluo says. "If he could do it, I could do it." He screwed up his courage, got a pin, and "didn't give a fuck who saw me do it." As Oluo walked to class, he saw Johnny again. "As I passed him, I stared at him right in the eyes," Oluo says. "As if to say, like, got your back, dude! He looked right back at me and, staring right into my eyes, he said something that I will never forget. He said: 'Fuck off, nerd.'"
Most of Oluo's stories—some heavy, like the absence of his Nigerian father, and some light, like getting a piece of gum stuck in his ass hair—are variations on this theme. He's never quite a hero and never quite a villain, just a decent-hearted misfortune magnet who doesn't so much act on the world as find the world happening to him. Even when he's talking about making a choice, it sounds passive: "By the time I was 19, I had a daughter," he says. "By the time I was 21, I had two daughters. By the time I was 22, I had a vasectomy."
Oluo's background is in jazz improvisation—he plays trumpet in Industrial Revelation, a high-octane quartet that won this year's Stranger Genius Award for music—but Now I'm Fine is meticulously scored, based on music he wrote during an illness marking one of the bleakest parts of his story. "The music is really elaborate," he said over the telephone last week. "At that point, I had done very little that didn't involve a large portion of improvisation... to take away the thing I'm strongest at is a challenge." Without a background in composition, it took six months of daily work to finish the scores. The result is a rich suite of songs that borrow from a huge range of influences—nimble jazz, bright indie pop, and an almost Balkan cirque noir flavor in some of the horn figures—but are anchored by the masterful, sculptural bass lines of Evan Flory-Barnes and drummer D'Vonne Lewis, both members of Industrial Revelation.
"The drum parts are so muscular and epic," Oluo said. "D'Vonne is such a sensitive drummer, he can play really soft and subtle, but can also get bigger than any drummer I've played with. The bass lines were all written around the way Evan plays—he encompasses the history of that instrument. All of the horn parts are written out note for note, but the rhythm section doesn't even have charts. We worked that out in an organic way... I've worked with them for a decade, it's just how I think, musically." (Flory-Barnes also composed some string-quartet figures for the show; okanomodé SoulChilde wrote lyrics.)
At times, Now I'm Fine feels like an exorcism. Oluo said the point of the show is not to prove that he's had a particularly bizarre or tragic life. "The most tragic thing in the world is death, and it happens to absolutely everybody," he said. "This is not that. Being sick is better than dying. Being sick and getting better is way better than dying... I'm not aiming to tell you this crazy thing about me, but awaken similar feelings in you." The show includes a story Oluo won't even say out loud—he keeps a long silence to take its place instead, giving audience members the opportunity to fill the void with whatever terrible stories they can't say out loud. "The whole idea is that at the moment I'm doing the show, the feeling I'm describing is the actual feeling felt by everybody there," he said. "A temporary exorcism—it's not supposed to solve any of your problems."
Five days before opening night, Oluo took a break from Now I'm Fine to play with his "punky, party" trio the Honorable Chief Ahamefule J. Oluo, a nod to his absentee father. (Out of context, the J in his name looks a little strange—as if it's there to distinguish Oluo from all the other Ahamefule Oluos you might know—but its reason for being is also revealed in the show.) Earlier that day, he fretted mildly over the phone, saying maybe he shouldn't do anything but keep working. But he felt like he needed a breather. The Honorable Chief packed out the loft in a tiny bar on Capitol Hill where people sweated and drank and bobbed their heads enthusiastically. Oluo blasted his trumpet directly into the crowd, looking and sounding almost cathartic, his neck expanding and contracting like a bellows. There was plenty of life left in there.