Fela! is now playing on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neil Theatre. Info: http://felaonbroadway.com/index.php
Here’s a review of last year’s off-Broadway production of Fela! from C & D’s column in Arthur No. 31 (Sept 2008):
FELA! A New Musical
at 37 Arts in New York City
Book by Jim Lewis & Bill T. Jones
D: So you went to a musical?
C: Yes, I did.
D: How did you like it? Did you laugh? Did you CRY?
C: From the first minute when the actor playing Fela sauntered by, two rows in front of me, on the way to the stage in his pink jumpsuit, led by his dancer/singer/wives, as Antibalas played the opening to “Everybody Scatter,” I was weeping openly.
D: I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It is said that dancing by yourself in your living room to Fela Kuti music is the only known cure for depression.
C: If it is that good, imagine what it must be like if you dance with others to it in public! The collective righteous joy is unbelievable. This thing broke me out of my post-David Foster Wallace suicide negative power zone.
D: So it was a full-on simulation?
C: Well… It’s not simply a tribute/costume concert, it’s an extremely brilliant musical-fueled biography of the man himself. The piece is two hours, 40 minutes and is set inside Fela’s club in Lagos, the Shrine. It’s 1976, I think, and he is onstage performing, and preparing to leave Nigeria. He’s had it with the ongoing corruption and idiocy in Nigeria. The government has arrested him, the military has stormed his commune, beaten and raped his wives and thrown his mother out of a second story window, leading to her eventual death. So he’s in and out of songs and monologues, reviewing his life to that point, smoking his big marijuana joints, laughing and crying and leading this band and this dance troupe, putting on this two-tier Afrobeat performance of… It’s spellbinding, just awesome, and I gotta say… As somebody who’s watched every second of available Fela Kuti footage out there, I thought I’d understood, as best I was gonna be able to understand in 2008, the man and the music. Well, I was totally wrong.
D: Wouldn’t be the first time!
C: Quiet. It’s one thing to see the pictures, to see the video, but to actually BE there, with the whole force of the music and the costumes and the VIBE in your face, at full volume, done with such love and care and attention to detail, with so much thought put into it… I don’t really understand how they did it, especially the guy who plays Fela, this brilliant actor named Sahr Ngaujah. Who inhabits him, completely, scarily. It’s enough to make you weep.
D: Which you did.
C: I should report that there is one major inaccuracy: the size of Fela’s rolled joints of Igbo, here it’s like a cigar but really they were more like torches.
D: Like a baby’s arm?
C: More like a bodybuilder’s.
D: That’s something they can fix when it goes to Broadway.
C: All the shit Fela talked about, it’s still true. More true. Bankers, government officials, colonial-minded lackeys, cowards, fools. Vampire Weekend? If only. It’s been a Vampire Millennium. And I can’t think of an artist alive today with the balls, and the trickster humor, and the anger, and the appetite for pleasure, and the gift for performance, and the raw charisma, the undeniable conviction, that he had. Did you know how musicians and other artists are not allowed to express views of the world in America? And if they break the rule, it’s cause for alarm and outrage and Drudge-shaming and record-banning and harassment and slandering and worse from the well-funded right-wing authoritarians. Don’t be political at the Oscars! Now is not the time! Nor at the Emmys. Oprah shouldn’t endorse! And so on. Because apparently they sometimes confuse the message from the government and break the entertainment moment that the viewer was anticipating, and indeed had every right to expect, given their school training and subsequent mediated experiences. The timing of Fela! is impeccable. He couldn’t believe the public would fall for this shit that the people in power were pulling.
D: But we do.
C: Over and over again.