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January festival dispatch #3: Diving back Under the Radar

Written by
Helen Shaw

In January festival time, it's usually harder to get excited in the second week: Exhaustion sets in, and this time, the weather's turned nasty. But Under the Radar's second week has been a barnburner.

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This week's shows have had effects ranging from keen admiration to stunned rapture, and I found myself seeing more and better things in a single day than a sinner like me could possibly deserve.

The one that slayed me, that had me texting people frantically from the lobby to “go, go, go,” was Now I'm Fine, the hybrid stand-up set/big-band concert by comedian/composer Ahamefule J. Oluo. It is described as an “experimental pop-opera,” which is bananas: It's a simple alternating structure of Oluo's confessional, witty, painful monologues about his life (his adolescent loneliness, an absent Nigerian father, a well-meaning mother who can “spew words with a reckless abandon that Joe Biden could only dream of”) and thrilling pieces by Oluo's orchestra. While it's about as experimental as The Tonight Show, it is a titanic spectacle, one that answers real trauma with a wall of trumpets playing loud and triumphant and bright. The first time the curtain sweeps aside and you see a dozen musicians on their glittery, black stage, it feels like a special effect. Then Oluo starts conducting, or rather dancing enthusiastically and batting at the band like a bear, and the music shoots you full of light. And then, a second curtain parts to reveal the singer and lyricist okanomodé, a stunning bald man in feathers, who is part Josephine Baker, part apotheosis of Ra. It's overwhelming, and the impressive thing is—Now I'm Fine repeats the pattern for more than an hour and a half, and yetsomehow manages to keep overwhelming us. A day later, it's as though I grabbed a live wire; I can still feel the electricity in my skin.

There is another wonderful show just upstairs, though you'll need significantly more emotional resilience to endure it. Samedi Détente by Compagnie Kadidi, directed and conceived by Dorothée Munyaneza, combines music, dance and memory to speak powerfully about the Rwandan genocide. As Nadia Beugré dances convulsively behind her, Munyaneza narrates the 100 days in 1994 when, she reminds us, 800,000 people were killed. Munyaneza was 11 when she and her family fled Kigali, and it's awful how perfectly she recaptures the innocence of her childhood perspective: she remembers an impressive radio; she wonders if the games she played—based on Chuck Norris films—somehow cursed the land. “Where were you in 1994?” she asks, and we all think back on our own “innocence” in that year—though ours, of course, wasn't innocence, but ignorance and inaction.

Youth and innocence are also woven deep into the texture of Employee of the Year, the delicate, typically deft work by 600 Highwaymen. Five young girls, all still squeaky voiced and cherub-cheeked, tell a story in first person about a girl who—and there are many twists and turns—spends decades looking for her mother. “Now I am 35!” says an adorable munchkin, and the audience laughs. But by the time a girl is telling us that “Now I am 80!” we have stopped laughing; the story about a wasted life has shifted into something like a secular sermon. Directors Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone wrote the text, and they incorporate five heart-stopping little songs by David Cale. The final a cappella ditty, in which a little girl in a sundress asks, “Will you remember me? Will you remember my face?” seems to turn the whole audience-paradigm on its head. She dares to ask something of us, and we'll have to spend the next 30 years calling her to mind just so she can have it.

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