Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Sadly, it's a name not many Americans are familiar with, but as the word gets out about Fela! and the Tony award nominations are announced next year, that's all likely to change- and it's about time.
Fela Kuti had few musical peers- James Brown, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Sinatra and Prince are among the handful that could be considered the man's equal. The founder of afrobeat, Fela took the music of his native Nigeria and cross-pollinated it with jazz and funk to create a heady stew of irresistible grooves. His songs often lasted up to thirty minutes over which he sang political lyrics that constantly landed him in deep trouble with the Nigerian government.
When you walk into the Eugene O'Neill theater the action is already well underway. Decorated to resemble the Shrine in 1978 (Kuti's club in Lagos, Nigeria) during the night of his final concert there, the band, Antibalas is already churning a groove and there are people dancing on the perimeter of the stage. The theater has the vibe of a party about to erupt- and soon enough the lights go down and it does. Various actors dance their way onto the stage, followed by the Sahr Ngaujah (one of two actors portraying Kuti). Ngaujah, from Sierra Leone, is a formidable and magnetic stage presence. It's hard to take your eyes off him, though there are many people onstage vying for your attention for the next two hours and forty-five minutes.
Although at moments it feels like more like a concert or a dance piece, this is serious musical theater. Fela! takes the audience through the evolution of Kuti's musical development, tracing out his influences from his native country to Sinatra to James Brown, while the band plays behind him. As the music changes, so does Fela's consciousness and his desire to effect a change against the Nigerian government and the multinational oil companies that run the country through the country's corrupted army. The first half of the show has the audience on their feet dancing along to Fela's classic grooves like "Everything Scatter," "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" and "I.T.T."
In the second half, as Fela's life is increasingly disrupted by continual harassment, arrests, and torture of him and those in his circle, the party spirit subsides and the show becomes a monument to the indefatigable spirit of the man and those around him. The music in the second part contains many of the darker hits, such "Sorrow, Tears and Blood," "Zombie" and "Coffin for Head of State," all of which still keep the audience entranced to the rhythm. The party becomes a provocation.
Throughout, there is an explosion of dancing coming across the stage and down the aisles. In real-life Kuti had some thirty-odd wives, here portrayed by nine or ten women who each bear a distinct and unique presence. It also needs to said that these women look nothing like the typical Broadway dancer- and that's a huge plus for the show. Jones's cast is perfectly comprised of people who possess major talent and are completely believable.
I discovered Fela's music in the 80's and had the good fortune to see him perform sometime in Los Angeles during that decade. It was a memorable show. The first album of his I bought was a 12" single titled "Black President" (on Capitol) and it had three songs that had over 40 minutes of music on it. It was the best $3.99 I ever spent on a piece of vinyl. As a fan, I was initially skeptical and had reservations about how this play would come across- would it try sanitize a man who definitely couldn't or shouldn't be? How could the music be performed up to the necessary standard, etc.? How could the essence of Fela be distilled into a Broadway show? This was a heady task and Jones and company have really succeeded in pulling this off beyond my most hopeful expectations. Kudos to the entire production for making this work so well.
Go see this play.