In 2018, writer, actor and comedian Obehi Janice was invited to respond to an exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The subject? Infamous 18th century libertine, Giacomo Casanova.
Prior to this, Janice hadn't known much about Casanova. “I just thought, ‘that's how you describe skeezy guys,’” she says. The exhibition took Casanova and his autobiography, Story of My Life, as the starting point for a wider consideration on the Rococo period. But all the same, it hit Janice hard. “I was like, ‘wait, so you're telling me this dude was fucking everybody, but not in a sexually free way?’ Like, he was using sex for manipulation.”
Five years on, Janice will be bringing the world premiere of her one-woman show, Nova, to the Lyceum. The work centres around charismatic Nova, who walks the audience through an 'archive' of her former lovers. Sound familiar? Crucially, Nova is no Casanova copy: “Nova's very flirty but she's not manipulative – she's very saucy, but not scammy,” insists Janice.
For Janice, Nova's power lies in her unabashed self-belief; reclaiming the comedic-storytelling space that has been dominated too long by white men: “Yes, she's taking [Casanova's] name, but she's playing with ideas around legacy and what we mean when we say someone's important.” To this day, Casanova's name remains a byword for romantic prowess; a 'lovable rogue', if you will. The truth of him was, of course, darker and more complicated. “Sex is power, and Casanova knew that,” she says. “He also knew that writing everything down was going to make him famous.”
Writing and exploitation remains a twisted rope in the 21st century. Janice – who joins the call fresh off a Writers' Guide of America picket line – knows this well, but has nonetheless forged a path through undeniable talent and 'sheer force'. While studying politics at Georgetown, Janice took theatre classes on the side, and led the university's Black theatre ensemble. Upon realising that a career on the Hill was not for her, she went home to Boston and acted in anything she could get her hands on, from Shakespeare to improv. But her ambition was to start writing her own plays, with its core in comedy.
Eventually she received a fellowship at New York's Public Theatre, which resulted in Ole White Sugah Daddy. The play, which follows a Black coder navigating Boston's start-up culture, has been picked up by Lena Waithe and Amazon to be developed into a series. It also landed Janice an agent and transplanted her to Los Angeles, where she hit the ground running with writing gigs on Castle Rock, Blindspotting and The Madness.
But the Casanova exhibit never left her. Janice produced two performances as a response to the exhibition, “and I'll be honest, it was such a heavy experience for me that I threw it away,” she says. Luckily, a friend convinced her to continue developing the show with director Caitlin Sullivan. At first, they thought the material was ripe for stand-up. “I brought in all this source material about break-ups, feeling betrayed by men. All of these things that were very prickly in the moment,” says Janice. But elements began to emerge that were not part of Janice's experience, like the act of archiving, as well as differences in personality. “My love language is, ‘I’m going to send you an article from the Atlantic’,” jokes Janice. “I don't always pick up on romantic cues. Nova does.”
Now Nova the character is very distinct from Janice the writer-performer, which she's grateful for. “There's self-protection in wanting to finish a show, go home and know that I still have my life, separate from Nova. She allows me a mask that I've been craving.”
So does she still consider Nova to be a heavy show? Lately, her team have been asking themselves this question. “I don't think it is,” Janice says. “The work to redefine history, legacy and cultural importance can be heavy emotional work. [But] to me, talking about sex, pleasure and desire – it's like, finally I get to use a tool that has been used in storytelling and comedy for years. I get to have my turn to play with it.”