New York City Theater
37 Arts Theater
You may not know the name now, but chances are you will soon. “Fela!,” the electrifying new evening of musical biography has eyes on extending its short off-Broadway run. More impressionistic and surrealistic than linear, the show is a tantalizing glimpse at someone ranked among the 100 most influential musicians of the 20th century.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997) once had 27 wives, later whittled down to a dozen. Although his personal life did not interfere with his years as an activist, socialist and politician, it was as a composer and musician that he made his mark. The musical journey that the great choreographer (now also director) Bill T. Jones weaves around him is as joyful as it is angry. Performed by a ceaselessly energetic cast and band (Brooklyn’s ethnopop Antiblas), the evening, with a book by Jones and co-conceiver Jim Lewis, is designed to defiantly blow spectators’ tops.
Fela’s musical contribution was Afrobeat, a combination of jazz, funk and African rhythms as performed by drums (“the pulse of the world”) and the human voice. Mix in dance, words in both English and Yoruba plus a free-flowing exuberance even in the midst of tragedy and you have an exhilarating evening.
The tale is wide-ranging and so complex that the creators have trouble condensing events for the stage. There’s Fela’s sojourn in London, where he began medical studies, then his discovery of music and on to worldwide tours. What’s clear are the two themes that thread throughout: one is his love for Nigeria and desire to rid the country of totalitarianism; the other is the inspirational life and terrible death of his activist mother, thrown from a second story window by soldiers serving the corrupt government.
That tragic event pervades Fela’s life, and Jones’ recreation. It inspires a mystical, Pieta-like reunion between mother and son. Fela as a Jesus figure is emphasized in one of Peter Nigrini’s provocative projections, “Suffer suffer for world.”
In this, the second half of the show, everything turns dark and bleak. In Act One, Fela’s arrest for marijuana possession is comic, as his jailers, anxious to retrieve the hash that Fela has swallowed, await his bowel movement. In Act Two, we’re shown torture instruments and a parade of coffins that both indict the Nigerian dictatorship and remind us of other modern terrors, from pollution to Halliburton, police brutality to Zimbabwe.
The music, too, takes on a more threatening undertone with titles like “Sorrow Tears and Blood” and “Coffin Head of State.” Though inexperienced as a politician, Fela tried to become the country’s president and, never forgetting his African roots, fought for universal ideals of liberty, justice and happiness.
If any of this sounds pedantic, it’s anything but. Even the lights and colorful costumes seem to dance. As Fela, Sahr Ngaujah plays saxophone and trumpet, sings, struts, dances and is altogether a commanding figure of charm and sensuality. Muscular and handsome, his Pied Piper charisma so captivates a cheering audience that they would surely follow him anywhere.
Beyond the show and its occasional drawbacks (it feels over-extended, with some songs going on too long and a loose overall structure), is a cheerful, stunning reminder that art can and should be dangerous. It should shake us up and stir us to action. From the way the “Fela” audience, on command, was wiggling its collective butts the other night, it’s only a step away from dancing in the seats to marching in the streets.
-- David A. Rosenberg
Sept. 7, 2008