Review - Fela!: You Can't Stop The Afrobeat
The only negative thing I'll say about Fela!, the Off-Broadway docu-musical inspired by the life of Nigerian political activist and musical revolutionary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, is that it never engaged this martini-swilling Manhattanite who entered the theatre unschooled in the culture and politics of the protagonist's homeland. The professionalism, exuberance and entertainment value of the piece is undeniable and I imagine many of my dear readers would have a terrific time visiting 37 Arts these days. But unless you're going in with a full knowledge of and an emotional attachment to its controversial subject, you may find, save for a well done moment late in the game, there is little dramatic pull to the proceedings to sustain interest for its two and a half hours. An audience full of fans of this internationally known artist who died in 1997 might understandably be thrilled by Fela! but while its potent message of the power of music to combat oppression is certainly universal, it took a review of the text's stage directions and a bit of Googling for this neophyte to get a fuller picture of the life and culture on display.
Born in 1938 with a Christian minister for a father and a mother who was a leader in Nigeria's anti-colonial women's movement, Fela was sent to London for an education in medicine, but was sidetracked by an interest in music; his first influences being Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. Fusing the jazz and pop styles he heard in London with the rhythms and chants of his homeland's Yoruba and high life, he created the Afrobeat sound and began touring and recording with his band, Koola Lobitos. Influenced by the 1960's Black Power movement through the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, his lyrics began taking swipes at Nigeria's military government in songs like "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" ("Who is the government's teacher? / Corruption and perdition.") and "Zombie" ("Zombie no go think unless you tell him to think."), the song that infuriated the state so much with its depiction of the military that it led to his brutal beating (one of many he endured along with his over 200 arrests) and a fatal attack on his mother, Funmilayo.
Conceived by its director/choreographer/co-bookwriter Bill T. Jones, co-bookwriter Jim Lewis and Steve Hendel, Fela!'s performance-within-a-performance structure sets the piece at the artist's regular haunt, a nightclub he named The Afrika Shrine, at a 1977 farewell concert given shortly after his mother's death as he prepares to exile himself to Ghana. The contemporary Afrobeat band, Antibalas, led by music director Aaron Johnson, portrays his onstage musicians (they also supply the arrangements) and Jones' fiercely energetic ensemble of dancers passionately undulate the erotically charged movements of nyansh, but despite the abundance of talent on stage, Fela! is, in spirit, a one-man show.
That one man is grandly personified by Sahr Ngaujah, who is given a theatrically Herculean task of acting as host ("Everyone say yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Feeling good tonight?"), narrating the story of Anikulapo-Kuti's political struggle, singing, dancing, delivering rimshot-worthy one-liners ("Take my Grandfather, they did!") and even giving the audience a lesson in the proper way to move ones hips to his music while rarely having a moment off-stage and continually being the center of attention. Ngaujah is admirably up to the challenge but while the authors allow him to effectively show us a bruised and battered artist determined to laugh in the face of oppression, the thin text denies the actor a chance to be the complex center that can truly light up the evening.
The beautifully voiced Abena Koomson gives warm tones to her supporting role as Funmilayo, paying a visit from the other side, but she and Sparlha Swa (as Sandra, his activist muse) are there to play symbols rather than people.
But if the script is lacking, the music radiates and Jones and his crew never allow Fela! to be less than visually entrancing. Set and costume designer Marina Draghici turns the entire auditorium into The Afrika Shrine with colorful murals and portraits painted on the walls and dresses the cast in an appealing mixture of traditional and 1970's contemporary. Robert Wierzel's lights are appropriately clubby and Peter Nigrini's videos nicely accent key moments. Most importantly, the kinetic force of the hard-working dancers and the talented star ably steer attention from the evening's shortcomings. A little bit of well-placed dramaturgy and Fela! might have turned out as interesting as it is accomplished.