Transcendent Dec 5, 2014

by Wesley K. Andrews

People throw the word “transcendent” around pretty lightly these days but Now I'm Fine by Ahamefule J. Oluo is specifically and exactly that. I don't mean that the show is very good, although it is, or that it's beautiful, which you can't deny, or that he finds comedy in the low places of life, which he does swimmingly. I mean that the show itself – and particularly the closing musical number – is a highly focused act of transcending a traumatic event. I don't necessarily think he did it on purpose. But that's precisely what he did.

In Act 3 of Now I'm Fine, Oluo speaks in great and evocative detail about the autoimmune condition that caused his body to literally slough off its own skin. That part of the show was rough.

But next came his skin's regrowth, which was rougher. Oluo described excess protein calcifying over his orifices while he slept, necessitating a macabre cosmetic ritual where he cut “human concrete” off his own lips in order to open his mouth in the morning. And, because that same excess protein had sealed shut his eyes, he was doing it blind.

His fingers were too sensitive from skin loss to play any musical instrument other than the light-actioned half-broken keyboard he found in an alley. And so that was what he played. For hours, for days, playing four simple chords and singing the same simple melody again and again.

What an image. Alone, half-blind, recently divorced, crippled, with every dream a young man ever harbored suddenly beyond the limits of physical capacity, singing a single melody for hours. It was frightening and demented to contemplate.

And then the orchestra of Now I'm Fine played that melody for us. Played it over and over, on repeat, building upon itself like Ravel's “Bolero,” until it reached a tremendous new height.

This is the act of transcendence. Finding new meaning within past trauma and rewriting autobiography.

Therapists call this “externalization” and it is a common method within traditional structured counseling and its various artistic offshoots. Externalization is the act of taking a bad memory, giving it a new life and new identity outside of one's own mind, and setting it free into the wild.

When Oluo lifted that melody outside of his basement apartment and dropped it into the fashionable halls of On the Boards he was literally re-wiring his own brain.

According to Adam Johns, a Marriage and Family Therapist at Evergreen Clinic, “What happens is that you create other neurological connections between what has happened in the story and what has happened in real life.” Now, when Oluo thinks of that melody, he can recall it with pride and joy. He can recall the standing ovation that he deservedly received instead of the sticky pain of raw flesh on a keyboard.

To witness Now I'm Fine is to witness the physiological reformation of a man's mind, in real time, in an atmosphere of hilarity and joy. This is a clarion call to the artists of Seattle: work with ambition, work with urgency, and strive to transcend the worser angels of our nature.