Theater & art

Stages | Terry Byrne

In ‘We’re Gonna Die,’ death is a cabaret, old chum

Obehi Janice

Leslie Hassler

Obehi Janice

Actress and playwright Obehi Janice turns to the band that has just accompanied her in a rehearsal of two pop-rock songs from “We’re Gonna Die,” the Company One Theatre production opening at Oberon April 20.

“I feel like the black Gwen Stefani,” Janice says, smiling at the male musicians behind her.

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“I write, I act, I tell stories, I even do some stand-up comedy,” she says. “But this is the first time I’ve been the lead singer in a band, and it’s terrifying and wonderful.”

Director Shawn LaCount says Janice’s fearlessness made her the perfect choice for “We’re Gonna Die,” playwright Young Jean Lee’s combination of funny and frightening stories of family, death, failure, and loneliness, framed within an upbeat, rock concert setting. In the performance, Janice alternates between storytelling and singing songs with the band in a classic cabaret setup.

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“Obehi is able to come at this piece with all her experiences as a storyteller and dynamic solo performer, but also as a connector: She has a way of listening and bringing people together,” says LaCount.

That versatility is essential to performing Lee’s work; there’s no room for artifice or theatrical technique. Lee has built a career around creating theater that is as unnerving as it is entertaining. She’s explored our notions of political correctness (“The Shipment”), stereotypes (“Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”), and self-hatred (“Lear”) in truly unpredictable combinations of silliness, subtlety, and sleek linguistic twists.

“In ‘We’re Gonna Die,’ Lee confronts the fact that we are all temporary,” says LaCount. “Although it’s uncomfortable and sometimes alarming to talk about that in public, this piece celebrates that we all have this in common.”

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Janice says she is honored to be the first person other than Lee to perform the piece.

“These are Lee’s very personal stories,” Janice says, “but the truth is, the emotions and reactions are familiar. I’m working on creating a character that feels true, and also acting as a curator: using music to create a mood or offer a break from the story.”

Although working with a band is new to Janice, she’s already demonstrated her ability to be both vulnerable and engaging on stage. Last year’s “Fufu & Oreos,” presented by Bridge Repertory Theater, was her one-woman show that wrapped together her Nigerian heritage, her struggle to find her own identity, and her belief in the power of an individual’s voice.

She developed “Fufu & Oreos” as part of Company One’s XX PlayLab in 2014 and is currently the company’s resident actor, supported by a fellowship from the Theatre Communications Group’s Fox Foundation.

It “comes with strings attached,” says Janice. “Some of the money I used to help pay back my college loans,” while the rest of the grant involves serving as an ambassador, educator, and performer. She is working on audience development, and teaching master classes in monologue and storytelling. She’ll also be traveling to East Africa to train with the Kampala International Theatre in Uganda and Zimbabwe Center of the International Theatre Institute.

Although Janice has also acted in an ensemble, most recently in “An Octoroon,” she says the rhythm of working with a band has been a fun challenge.

The band — Steve Sarro, Thom Dunn, Shahjehan Khan, and Ethan Selby — was assembled for “We’re Gonna Die,” so they had to learn to play together as well as with Janice.

‘I was intimidated at first, but the band has become another character on stage with me. It’s great not to be up here alone.’

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“I rehearse the monologue pieces, then we rehearse the music, then we try to put it together,” says Janice. “I was intimidated at first, but the band has become another character on stage with me. It’s great not to be up here alone.”

Now playing at the BCA

The Boston Center for the Arts in the South End is host to a great variety of theatrical adventures. Here are three you can see right now:

Imaginary Beasts is staging legendary director Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Project adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland,” which asked the actors to improvise the selections from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There,” by imagining that they were children confined to a padded cell. The creative use of simple props like chairs brings out Carroll’s most fantastical imagery. In the BCA Plaza Black Box, through April 23. Tickets: $10-$24. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com.

Moonbox Productions offers a taste of 1920s decadence with Michael John LaChiusa’s “The Wild Party,” at the Calderwood Pavilion. With a book and lyrics by George C. Wolfe and LaChiusa, the show uses vaudeville sketches to illuminate the desperate and disintegrating lives of people living on the edge. In the Roberts Studio Theatre, April 15-May 1. Tickets: $45. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com.

Psychological thrillers are all too rare on stage, so the co-production from Boston Public Works and the Cotuit Center for the Arts of “Unsafe” merits attention. Playwright Jim Dalglish sets his play in 2003, but the impact of the 9/11 attacks continues to haunt the characters in this drama. In the BCA Plaza Theatre, April 15-30. Tickets: $22-$29. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com.

WE’RE GONNA DIE

Presented by Company One Theatre, at Oberon, Cambridge, April 20-29. Tickets: $25-$35, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.
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