"Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise."
"Still I Rise" from AND STILL I RISE © 1978 by Maya Angelou.
It is not too often that a housemeeting presentation draws a standing ovation. Actually, last week may have been the first, at least in the two short years that I have been at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. This particular performance started with a poem by Maya Angelou and one would suspect that Ms. Angelou’s words would be a difficult act to follow. However, Obehi Janice’s ’05 excerpt of her one-woman play, "fufu and oreos," captivated me (and if the laughter and tears in the Capen Room were any indication, everyone else in attendance as well) from beginning to end. Obehi wove a seamless transition from reciting a few stanzas of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise to what appeared to be an impromptu rendition of the “Circle of Life” (The Lion King) and on to a soliloquy seeded in an expression of self-doubt and depression.
With a voice that is deep, sultry, strong and clear Obehi quickly brought us back around to sunnier times during her childhood, chasing “all the boys” in the school playground. Yet just as quickly she expressed frustration and confusion about why the boy she had a crush on, “Jimmy Dillon”, did not like her anymore and instead started to chase a red head girl. A mantra that began as silly, even funny, became so powerful and painful. “Doo-do, chocolate, Hershey bar, cucka.” Each time Obehi repeated those words they became increasingly hurtful to hear. The incident on the playground turned out to be a defining moment in Obehi’s life, yet also the beginning of her journey in searching for her identity and coming to terms with the idea that she is unique unto herself.
She is clearly a powerful, charismatic, captivating and gifted writer/performer. Her performance was all the more compelling in that I could appreciate Obehi’s personal message of clarifying her identity as an African-American woman, without being one myself. She had a way of allowing her audience to insert identifying qualities into her words ; using her own voice and her own story, she peeled back the layers of a quest that all of us have faced at one time or another and certainly a message that the young girls in attendance could appreciate: defining our identity.
In what could be considered Part 2 of her play, as Obehi tugged at her hair and recited “Tough hair, brown eyes, dark skin, butt, big nose, big lips, tough hair – what am I to do with that?” It made me think of a Nina Simone song, Four Women. In her song Nina sings about four “negro” women of different colors. All four of Nina’s women have experienced different worlds and their identities vary as much as their skin tone, however her voice resonates with the message that examining self identity is what matters most and they/we are ultimately all the same in the quest. Eventually, in her performance, Obehi confides in us that “It’s not about the hair.”
Obehi made us laugh without apology and she made us cry in reflection. I could sense that everyone in the room had their eyes and ears glued to her, but that is only a guess -- I was so riveted by her performance that I could not pause to assess the reactions of other people in the room. Perhaps all of us could relate, in our own way, to the sometimes difficult journey of finding oneself. What a powerful message for the young girls attending Stoneleigh-Burnham School; that it is OK to have some doubts but it is even more important to understand that searching for one’s identity is a universal challenge. It could be fair to say that despite the color, faith, nationality or identifying differences of any of the students in the Capen Room that day (faculty or staff, for that matter) the message and how it was delivered broke down barriers and hopefully helped us move to better understanding of our own identity as well the diversity of our SBS community.
Throughout my travels for the Alumnae Office at Stoneleigh-Burnham School I am repeatedly reminded by the stories alumnae share with me of how Stoneleigh-Burnham School (or Mary A Burnham and Stoneleigh Prospect Hill) helped shape and reveal the identifying qualities of the individual student. Obehi Janice ’05 may have played her most significant role of her acting career by influencing the young girls in attendance at that housemeeting during the spring of 2011 with the resonating message that it’s OK to be you, it’s OK to be different and it’s OK to struggle with the journey along the way.
Her play is self-admittedly incomplete ….one would imagine that it would be a ‘life-long’ production.
To view Obehi’s one-woman performance at SBS "fufu and oreos," check out this Youtube video: fufu and oreos
- Liz Feeley, Associate Director of Development and Alumnae Relations