What’s the one thing we all have in common?
As the Company One Theatre team explains in the video below, we all love Beyoncé, no one dug the second season of True Detective, and everyone cares what other people say about them.
Oh, and we’re gonna die.
That’s both a hard, fast fact of life and the title of Company One’s latest production. Written by the explosive playwright Young Jean Lee, We’re Gonna Die made a splash when it debuted in 2011. The play’s musings on mortality, its live band—and its audience engagement component—fascinated critics from the New York Times to Vogue, where Adam Green remarked, “I suspect that joining my voice with those of my fellow audience members, chanting ‘We’re gonna die’ over and over will remain one of the most inexplicably pleasurable experiences of my theatergoing life.'”
“I think it’s is off the wall in the way that it’s so very deeply connected to every single person who is living,” Company One Theatre co-founder and director of public relations Summer Williams says of We’re Gonna Die. “It’s one of those pieces that’s telling the truth about us—no matter who you are, no matter what shoes you’re wearing … that is something that’s inevitable for everyone.”
That makes the play a perfect fit for Company One, which was founded in 1998 with an emphasis on diverse casting, engaging young people and on staging plays that are a little outside of the box. The company’s goal has always been both ambitious and simple: to change the face of Boston theatre. Williams says they want to be at the forefront of the area’s theatre scene, and, recently, they’ve made waves with “hot-button” plays like Neighbors, which debuted in 2011, and Shockheaded Peter, which featured the music of Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys. “And we feel really pleased that I think people can look out at the landscape and say that we’ve done that in a lot of ways,” Williams adds.
They’ve mounted 60 plays over the course of the last 16 seasons, but the company is still growing and changing—We’re Gonna Die‘s run at Oberon marks its first foray into Cambridge as well as its first collaboration with the American Repertory Theatre.
And those aren’t the only first firsts for this production. The Oberon performances feature Obehi Janice in the lead role, making this the only time We’re Gonna Die has been performed by someone other than Young Jean Lee.
Janice, who’s been involved with the theatre company since 2009, says she’s long been “obsessed” with Lee’s work. She went to see Lee’s plays, she attended her workshops—at one point, she met her. Janice sees parallels between her own life and that of the groundbreaking young playwright; both are the daughters of immigrants, both are fascinated by and produce work that Janice says is “vulnerable and open and honest.” When she first fell for Lee, back in college, she fell hard.
“Her irreverence was so refreshing,” Janice explains. “I did not—at the time—know of playwrights who were writing and creating and producing their own work with such fervor.”
We’re Gonna Die is a unique collaboration for Janice and the live band soundtracking the show—Ethan Selby, Shahjehan Khan, Steve Sarro and Thom Dunn. They come from different backgrounds (music, theatre, stand-up comedy) but have had shared experiences trying to make it work from gig to gig in creative fields. The interplay between these different performative qualities is a huge part of what has Janice excited for audiences to see it.
But truly, she says she’s thrilled about nearly every aspect of the production. As soon as she heard Company One was staging this play, Janice knew she wanted to get involved as a community partner—and ended up getting cast in the leading role.
“It feels very fateful and very awesome and proper … and also, terrifying. And amazing,” she laughs. “It’s all these emotions at one time. But all in all, I’m really, really happy.”
We’re Gonna Die will be encouraging theatre-goers to laugh, cry and embrace their mortality from April 20-29 at Oberon (2 Arrow St., Cambridge). Tickets are $25 or $15 for students and are available online at americanrepertorytheater.org.