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Facing mortality on A.R.T.’s Oberon stage

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO

Last week, Obehi Janice was the first actress, outside of the writer herself, to perform Young Jean Lee’s one-woman show “We’re Gonna Die.” On the American Repertory Theater’s Oberon stage, she wove song, spoken word and comedy together to discuss the trials of life, and mortality.

Janice’s unnamed character says early on in the show, “That’s what I’d like to share with you tonight. Just some ordinary moments that help get through that lonely, painful feeling.” She goes on to tell stories about growing up, experiencing heartbreak and losing her father to cancer. Each story hits on a different type of aging and reconciling with the passage of time, and, eventually, death. The dark subject matter is lightened with comedic storytelling and tongue-and-cheek songs. Janice does an impeccable job making the content palatable and humorous, while remaining heartfelt and authentic.

This show is not for beginners to the mortality game. It attracts an eclectic crowd, but on Tuesday Oct. 4, the youth-oriented Oberon was filled almost exclusively with a middle-aged and older audience. It’s not a performance for people who have never thought about death. In fact, the tone of “We’re Gonna Die” feels a bit like an inside joke among those self-aware enough to recognize their impermanence. Janice cheekily tells stories about moments when her character experienced death and aging. It’s a wink, wink to people who have also found grey hairs and woken with back pain.

This effect is largely in part to Janice’s interpretation of the material. The actress wanted to avoid making the play snarky and hipster, a path the material could easily have taken. “Hipster culture is associated with whiteness,” she says. “I’m hyperaware of being a black woman performing this show. I found a way of making it more authentic to my story.” In doing this, Janice’s character comes off as wise, and eager to bring peace to the audience and to herself. It’s funny without being satirical, which would have significantly devalued the message.

Janice describes the show as an experiment. She imagines that Lee wrote the show as a way to ruminate on life and death, and that the audience is exploring the subject in tandem. This feeling of being in it together culminates in the final act, when the audience participates in a rousing chorus of “We are going to die,” while clapping their hands in time to the music. The ability to balance humor and solemnity about death comes from a place of self-awareness and acceptance. Janice says, “People have told me they receive comfort and healing from the show. We’re giving the audience the opportunity to breathe.”