Editor’s Notebook: Seattle musician’s film ‘Thin Skin’ makes PNW debut

Plus: What does it really mean to be a ‘City of Literature’?

A still from the movie ‘Thin Skin,’ featuring Seattle performers Annette Toutonghi and Ahamefule Oluo. (Sean Kirby)

In the olden days of being a Seattle arts and culture editor, the days when there were unlimited and unmasked in-person events, I regularly encountered a phenomenon I called Let’s Make a Deal for art. This was when two or more promising cultural events were scheduled at the same time on the same night. Which door to pick? Sometimes Door No. 1 revealed a “brand new car” of art, sometimes a sad trombone of disappointment.

I remember having to play this terrible game on the night Seattle musician/comedian/writer Ahamefule J. Oluo presented a work-in-progress version of his live jazz concert/memoir, Now I’m Fine at Town Hall in 2012. I picked the other door. While my choice turned out okay, feelings of deep regret settled in at around 9 p.m. That’s when people started streaming out of Oluo’s show and calling me to say how amazing it was.

When he restaged it at On the Boards in 2014, I made sure to pick the right door. The story is based on real-life events during a time in Oluo’s life when he was adrift, recently divorced and musically stuck. His absent Nigerian father suddenly reappeared by way of a scratchy phone call, and just as quickly evaporated. And then he developed an autoimmune disease that dissolved his skin. With the help of his wife and co-writer, Lindy West, Oluo told his tale with dark humor and glorious music. Now he’s made it into a film, Thin Skin, with director Charles Mudede.

I saw the film last month, when it screened online via the Bentonville Film Festival. I love the moody quiet, the Metro bus rides, the club scenes bursting with jazz. It showcases the south end of Seattle beautifully and includes a totally Northwest dream sequence with lots of moss. And while Oluo is the comedy writer, it’s Seattle actress Annette Toutonghi who provides the laughs here, with her layered portrayal of Oluo’s mother, whose extreme quirkiness is balanced by a thoroughly open and endearing spirit.

Pacific Northwest viewers can stream Thin Skin on Saturday (Sept. 12 at 6:30 p.m.) via the Time-Based Arts festival at Portland Institute of Contemporary Arts. The screening will be followed by an online talk with Oluo, his sister Ijeoma Oluo (who plays herself) and Mudede. You’re going to want to open this door.

'Seismic: Seattle, City of Literature' is a new collection of essays by Northwest writers, edited by Kristen Millares Young. (Cover: Mita Mahato; Photo: Jenn Furber)

It’s no secret: Our city is a hotbed of bookworms. We have deeply committed library-card holders (I saw a long, socially distanced line of them waiting to get into the downtown location on a recent morning), a vibrant slate of author readings and an abundance of bookstores, which are surviving the pandemic (fingers crossed) thanks to a rush of online orders. Still, becoming an officially sanctioned “City of Literature” was no cakewalk. 

Earning the coveted UNESCO status took Seattle four years and a series of fits and starts that included a viral literary scandal and a 71-day mayor. When the designation arrived in late 2017, Seattle became the second City of Literature in the U.S., after Iowa City, Iowa; the two remain the only American cities of the 39 global awardees.

Among its many plans for elucidating and encouraging our bookish nature, Seattle City of Literature (the nonprofit tasked with UNESCO programming) has set out to capture what it actually means to be a City of Literature — what the title inspires, and what it demands — in a book of essays by 10 local writers. Edited by Subduction author Kristen Millares Young, Seismic: Seattle, City of Literature will be released Sept. 15. Pick it up free at an independent bookstore and tune in for the virtual release party, hosted by Seattle Public Library (Sept. 15, 7 p.m.; free with registration). 

Inside the lovely cover (designed by local cut-paper collage artist Mita Mahato) are essays by diverse regional voices. New York Times columnist Tim Egan writes about how nature defines Seattle and the stories we tellKen Workman, Chief Si’ahl’s great-great-great-great-grandson shares the storytelling legacy of the Duwamish people, and “the story of the whole planet.” And Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna outlines why Seattle has a ways to go to live up to the title City of Literature. These and the other thoughtful explorations create a chorus of many parts, sometimes harmonic, sometimes dissonant, all singing a song of Seattle.

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