Actress, writer, & comedian
Obehi’s work speaks to her ethos: a combination of painful (and joyous) honesty and comedic relief. Obehi gives her own lived experience a voice through her work, performing at times lighthearted and at times heart-wrenching politics of the everyday life.
A proud Lowell, Massachusetts native, born to Nigerian immigrant parents, Obehi grew up “hyper[-]aware of being a Nigerian girl.” In the nineteenth century, Lowell was one of the country’s most important hubs for the textile industry. Migrant and immigrant workers flocked to Lowell where they processed the raw cotton from slave plantations in the South. Today, people of color comprise forty percent of Lowell’s population; nearly the entire Black population is composed of people with a recent family history of African migration. While Obehi loved growing up around an array of communities of color, she struggled to balance her American and Nigerian identities; throughout her childhood Obehi was known by her English name “Janice.”
She has since learned to trust her inner power and her faith in guiding her work. While Obehi is intentional in her politicization of the personal and fiercely embracing of her Blackness, her work’s focus is on creating meaningful representations that are honest to herself as an individual, and on “simply thriving” as an artist. Her Spotlight exemplifies what it means to be your authentic self and to understand how you can best serve your community.
Obehi recently relocated to Brooklyn, New York, where she continues to pursue her artistry from within a supportive community that doesn’t ask her to explain why she’s on stage.
What was growing up in Lowell, MA like and how has it influenced your journey and craft?
I loved growing up in Lowell so much so that I'm now writing about it. After ten years, I'm beginning to write plays that are based in my home city. Lowell is a working class city with a lot of immigrants. It's not perfect and there were a lot of times where I was almost too aware as a young girl that I was Black and my parents were Nigerian. But for the most part, I take pride in my identity as a Lowell-native. It actually wasn't until I watched The Fighter (the biopic on Mickey Ward starring Mark Wahlberg) that I realized my city had this dark crack-cocaine history. In retrospect, it explains a lot -- I often had white classmates who struggled and then suddenly weren't in my class anymore, you know? -- so seeing how Hollywood was reflecting back this interesting time in the 80s and 90s was illuminating. But for the most part, my time in Lowell was defined by me juggling my American identity and my Nigerian heritage. I actually went by my English name, Janice, up until the day I went away to a boarding high school. So from HeadStart to Eighth Grade, people knew me as Janice and my family called me Obehi. To this day, there are some people in Lowell who know me solely as Janice. It's interesting. My Mother also owns a salon in Downtown Lowell that she founded when I was ten, I think? So I also have this history of being the daughter of a small business owner who happens to be an immigrant.
Tell us more about FUFU & OREOS.
FUFU & OREOS is a solo show about my history with clinical depression. It deals with faith, identity and culture but is also really humorous. It has a long history so, bear with me! I conceived the show in 2009 when I was about to graduate from Georgetown University. I knew that it would be awhile before I'd be able to portray a young Nigerian-American woman so I figured I would write my own role and just play myself. It's morphed from a solo show with no script -- just me riffing off a skeletal script -- to a solo play with a script and now it's currently being developed as a solo piece with just me and a mic telling stories. FUFU & OREOS is also on all my social media handles and such and I guess it's my brand -- it's how I get people to know me better as an artist. I kind of love how the title came to me first and now the actual content of the piece keeps changing as I grow up and mature. It's exciting to have something to call my own.
While we are starting to see a bit more on-screen representation of people of color, specifically black representation, the whitewashing of poc narratives persists and the perspective from which these narratives are told are often white-centered. How does your work, as a black Nigerian-American woman, fit into this conversation and how do you challenge it?
Yeah, I get asked this question a lot which frustrates me (white women aren't asked this question) but I understand that it's a part of the work. I also think that white people should be asked this question as well - industry changes need to be systematic. Nonetheless, I currently look to Ava Duvernay as model for how to thrive and not strive in times likes these where this is so much rapid change. So all of my work is political because the personal is political and even the specific is political. I try to get as particular as possible when it comes to how I draw out details in my personal storytelling and in my playwriting. My comedic short, BLACK GIRL YOGA and my Boyz II Men parody, It's So Hard To Date Around In Boston, also have political undertones. Essentially, I just embrace that I'm a Black woman telling stories. From my hair to my nose to the sound of my voice, everything about me is political. This country isn't nice to Black women --- we are systematically ignored and pushed aside (even though we're the most educated!) I investigate whiteness in my work only when it relates to my Blackness. I of course have a lot of closed door conversations about how whiteness works in a destructive sense, but for now I'll say that I'm looking forward to making my work great and excellent and finding new avenues for financial security as an artist so that I can build a long-lasting creative legacy.
Your work discusses a variety of topics from racial politics, dating, mental health to your family and your Nigerian heritage. Who is your intended audience and what do you want people to take away from your work and stories?
I am writing and creating for the Black, dark-skinned young woman who, like myself, loves God but sometimes feels lost, less-than, and misunderstood. Going back to specificity, I truly believe that when I am specific and intentional about my audience, everyone else will get hip and come along if they'd like. I am always honored when people of all stripes and types tell me my work touched them or that they could completely relate. That means I'm doing something right. That means my intended audience is everybody.
We have not had the opportunity to see your work live, but through reading your interviews online and watching your clips we are captivated by your transparency and your commitment to creating transformative work. Who are some of your mentors that helped mold and craft your art? How important have these relationships been to the evolution of your plays, comedy sketches, and playwriting?
What advice do you have for other women of color who are exploring theatre and comedy, but may not have the resources or access to do so?
That transparency and commitment to transformative work is something I get from my Mom. She's not an artist, but my values mirror hers. The playwrights that have shaped my work and life are Kirsten Greenidge, Lydia R. Diamond, Robbie McCauley and Eisa Davis. They all have distinct voices and have been so generous to me with their time and guidance and their example as Black women in theatre. My mentors from Georgetown University include Isaiah M. Wooden, Natsu Onoda-Power and Maya Roth. These are people who I call friend, first and foremost, but I can always rely on to remind me why the difficult work of creating a life as an artist is worth it. Finally, I have a long list of "virtual" mentors --- people that I don't know personally but I look up to for professional inspiration, no matter their medium. They include: Ava Duvernay, Tayari Jones, Oprah, Danai Gurira, Leslie Jones, Tina Fey, Glory Edim, Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Tiffany Haddish, and Numa Perrier. I always tell young women of color to build that list of virtual mentorship but to never compare. Comparison and jealousy stunted and distracted me for awhile when I should have been focusing on my own development. I also think that resources come from within (are you willing to trust your own voice?) and they also have to be sought out. It's quite alright to change cities, professions and even relationships to push yourself to be in front of the right resources. Access is everything but if you're feeling set back as Black woman, you have to fight for your access and build up a community of support that will be there for you when things get hard. Also - find your friends who want to make stuff with you and make stuff! This has got be a joyful experience. We're all doing this to build great relationships and friendships, not just make art.
The City of Boston is one of the top 10 most segregated cities across the country in relation to both race and class (which often are one in the same). What are your hopes for creative and social justice movements in the area and what has your move to Brooklyn been like?
I saw Yellowman at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn, New York and realized that I was one of the youngest audience members. BUT, with joy, I also realized that everyone in the audience save, like, two white people were Black. I’ve never had that experience for the seven years I was in Boston. Ever. I don’t have solutions for Boston and, to be completely honest, I kind of regret answering that question so frequently in the past. Engaging that question got in the way of me being a growing actor and writer. It got in the way of the art. My push-back is to say that I would tell 22-year-old Obehi to not take on the burden of having to fix a city, but to simply thrive, create with joy and believe in herself. I think that Bostonians know what’s truly up and that constant need to “fix” Boston is just covering up core problems. I guess I’ll say that I felt it when Menino died. He figured out the heart of Boston and elevated that for the world to see. Since he’s passed, I’m not sure what Boston has symbolically to cling to. I’m grateful for my time in Boston because it gave me my comedic voice - a voice that I am proud to say was incubated in Boston. Moving to Brooklyn was in the cards for a long time - people close to me knew that I was trying to relocate to New York for years. I knew that my hopes as an artist extended to New York and Los Angeles and Boston was an incubator, as it has been for many comedic voices before me. Further, it was really important for me to be among more artists of color who are multi-hyphenates like myself. I think I got to a point in Boston where I was looked at as an exception, and I didn't want to live my entire creative life as an exception. I'm one of many excellent Black female artists. I love Brooklyn because it fits my personality, my spirit and my professional goals. I thank God every day that I made this move because in the few months I’ve been here, I’ve already been so blessed. I'm in residence at The Public Theater through their Emerging Writers Group. I feel like I’m finally among my people - fellow actor/writers like myself who have groundbreaking voices. The mentorship I'm receiving at The Public is unparelleled, thus far, in my career. I've never been in an environment where my identity as an artist is a given, first, and then everything else is just dressing. I feel like I’m shaking off years of being in a city where I had to explain why I was an artist. Thankfully, no more.
As an actress, how do you maintain your authentic self and how do you determine how much of yourself to share with your viewers?
I'm a really private person so social media is not my method of sharing my authentic self. I'm so much better in person. Now, to be honest, that may change! I think social media should be a strategic tool for any artist but I say jokingly/seriously to close friends that if I ever get married, for example, folks in the social media-sphere will know, like, a year later. I dunno, I just value my ability to practice vulnerability privately, if that makes sense. I love that through my plays, comedy sketches and essays, anyone can get a sense of who Obehi really is. I will share that I am a Christian and a survivor of clinical depression. A lot of my private life involves self-care, prayer and deep reflection so I'm always hopeful that my work is refined by that amount of care. I also have hobbies - watching TV, exercise, reading books, debriefing pop culture with friends - you know, things that bring me joy and basic satisfaction. I pray constantly and I have a lot of friends who are not artists - it keeps me grounded.
what are you currently working on and how can we support your work?
My Boyz II Men parody, It’s So Hard To Date Around In Boston, will be at the Roxbury International Film Festival on Saturday, June 23. My latest solo piece, Obehi Janice: Casanova will be at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on September 21. I'm writing three plays right now, auditioning, collaborating on new comedic pitches, and working on some exciting voice over projects. I’ll be a Creative Resident at SPACE on Ryder Farm this summer and fall. I’m currently raising money for my creative projects through Fractured Atlas.
The best way to stay updated on my work is through my website: obehijanice.com. You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram @fufuandoreos.