Thursday, May 9, 2013
Theater review: Fela introduces the king of Afro-beat in the year’s most unusual musical
From music and politics, Fela's legacy impacted more than just audiences.
DALLAS He started out as a talented musician, creating a new music sound and performing with his band all over the world. By the time of his death, he had become the radical and highly controversial voice of an oppressed people, not only of his home country Nigeria, but of all of Africa. His full birth name was Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, but he was known as Fela Kuti, or simply Fela.
Born into a middle-class family in 1938, Fela's father was a Protestant minister and school principal and his mother was a feminist activist. Opposed to indiscriminate taxation of women by the British colonial government, she helped negotiate Nigerian independence from Britain.
With such an auspicious beginning, having a mother with that kind of conviction in such a place and time, there could be no doubt that Fela was destined for greatness. With two older brothers, both doctors, Fela followed suit and left to study medicine in London in 1958, but found music instead and studied at the prestigious Trinity College of Music.
Starting up a band while still there, his style was a blend of jazz and highlife, which is a Ghana music genre characterized by jazzy horns and multiple guitars. Later on he went a new direction musically and developed Afrobeat, a blend of jazz, funk, highlife, traditional Yoruba music and chanted vocals.
In 1969, Fela traveled to the United States to play with his band and soon discovered the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party. It was his encounter that would heavily influence both his music and political views. Returning home to Nigeria a year later, Fela formed the Kalakuta Republic in Lagos which included a commune and recording studio. Setting up a nightclub across the street in the old Empire Hotel, he eventually named it the Afrika Shrine, and this is the setting for the musical, Fela!, now being performed at the Winspear Opera House as part of the Lexus Broadway Series for the AT&T Performing Arts Center.
The musical developed from the inspiration of Carlos Moore's biography, Fela: This Bitch of a Life. Businessman Stephen Hendel had come across Fela's music on the Internet, fell in love with the Afro-pop sound and was determined to make a theater piece based on it.
Hendel was introduced to the award-winning dancer, choreographer, and now director, Bill T. Jones, who had before created some dances to Fela's music, and the project began. At first, it was only to be a performance piece using seven of Fela's songs, but as Jones quickly became more interested in Fela's politics and personality, he and everyone else involved realized it had the potential of becoming a full blown musical with story and dialogue. Producers were procured, including Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, and under Jones' directing tutelage, it soon moved into more lofty commercial realms.
The musical ran off Broadway for only one month in 2008 and then premiered on Broadway a year later. This production received eleven Tony Award nominations, the most for a new work of any that season, including "Best Musical," "Best Book" and "Best Direction of a Musical." It won a Tony for "Best Choreography," and both "Best Costume" and "Best Sound Design for a Musical."
Prior to closing, after playing 497 previews and performances, the Royal National Theatre presented Fela! as part of their season in the fall of 2010, an unprecedented event for a work seen simultaneously at the NT and on Broadway. It too received raves and applause from the British theatre goers, along with numerous awards. Fela! toured internationally, selling out in Amsterdam and in his own Nigeria. It returned to London, then toured the U.S., finalizing in an acclaimed encore four-week run on Broadway during the summer of 2012.
If you don't know anything about Fela Kuti, have never heard his music, not read any reviews or seen any promotional literature on the musical, you might be in for a shock ... or two ... or maybe more. 42nd Street or Fiddler on the Roof this is not. It's not even Rent or Spring Awakening or even Avenue Q, all three musicals having a bit, or a lot, of controversy in them. Fela! can only be described as a rock concert, a rave, an African tribal ritual and a mind-melding hallucinatory drug-trip all rolled into one. There is simply nothing to compare it with on a theater stage anywhere that I am aware of. Half way through I questioned whether the theatre had piped ganja smoke through the air vents. The music, the lights, the costumes and the sights all swirl together in a spectacular theatrical vision.
In one of many website's I visited to prepare myself for what I was about to see, someone wrote, "It's almost impossible to overstate the impact and importance of Fela Kuti to the global music scene." His songs and their meaning impacted an entire continent of oppressed people and angered the very oppressors in a land where such action usually meant death. He even changed his middle name from Ransome to Anikulapo, meaning "he who carries death in his pouch." An ominous foretelling to be sure.
You see, by the mid 1970s, Fela was considered a threat – a social commentator who spoke out on human rights and criticized the upper class Africans for allowing European imperialism to dilute traditional African culture. A long-time supporter of human rights, he used his songs to rabble rouse the people, with direct attacks against all dictatorships, and especially the militaristic government of Nigeria. The armies retaliated with constant raids on the nightclub and continual harassment of Fela, attempting to arrest him for any and every indiscretion, of which Fela had many.
Fela! places the audience smack dab in the middle of the height of Fela Kuti's musical career in 1978. He has made several albums, is known across Africa as the originator of the Afrobeat sound, and as the musical begins, Fela addresses the audience as though we are there for a concert at his club, the Afrika Shrine. And indeed we are, this hugely popular venue also filled with youth opposed to the country's fascist dictatorship and military regime. Though using only a fraction of the cavernous opera house staging area, Scenic Designer Marina Draghici's Afrika Shrine looked to be a huge, abandoned warehouse space with corrugated steel metal paneling for back wall, and concrete columns plastered with the pictures, political flyers and, as lyricist Jim Lewis wrote in the program notes, "'The Ancestors', gods and human, alive and dead, who like Fela, put their lives at stake for what they believed."
Colored strings of light were festooned on the columns, and above and across the stage floor for a ramshackle, "rave-esque" feel. Side stairs and ladders took the commune residents and the crowds who came to the shrine, up to a stage-width balcony. A very large stylized portrait of Kuti's mother, Funmilayo, hung near the top of the proscenium opening, stage left. She was spotlighted there as both a shrine and reminder to Kuti of the power his mother hold over his mind. Everything seemed make-shift yet comfortable. And everything was dim.
Robert Wierzel used low-lit general lighting, placing the musicians, who nest underneath the stairs and balcony, in shadowy dimness. Unless one or two come downstage, they remained as silhouettes with sound. Wierzel cut through all the dark with sharp as razors, white down spots, slicing the scenes into sections when the storyline required. During the most upbeat and outrageous songs, he blasted bright orange and yellow spots directly into the audience in time with the downbeat of the saxophone or drums. But the most unnerving light came from behind – a super white flashbulb of a light that, while also in sync with the music, became like flashes of Fela's life, or slow-motion paparazzi camera flashes going off – extremely effective but disturbing at the same time.
As befits the time period and the desire of Fela's "people" to take back their African heritage, the costumes, also by Marina Draghici, combined turquoise 70s jumpsuits for Fela with Josephine Baker-style skimpy skirts and tops for his queens in the first act, changing to Fela's coral jumpsuit and traditional full-length buba dresses with wrapper and matching gele head-tie, Kentes or Kaftans with head-tie (yes, I looked them up) for the women in the second act. Some of the taller women had leggings of strapped metal and leather, or metal and leather adornments. The costumes were striking and alluring when they danced. Besides our Elvis impersonator, the men wore mainly street clothes of jeans, loose shirts or dashikis, newsboy caps or wool rasta hat. Hairstyles and wigs, designed by Cookie Jordan for both the men and women, were natural, dreadlocked or highly upswept and tied.
During some of Fela's pronouncements to the audience, projections behind and above the balcony depicted newsreels of the actual Fela Kuti and Nigeria's people protesting in the streets. They showed African imagery and also quick, powerful phrases of song lyrics as he sang them. Imagery and symbols played a big part in this production; ones that would stick in your mind long after the houselights came up.
Director Bill T. Jones is first and foremost a dancer. He is world-famous for his choreography and performance as a solo artist and then in duet with his late partner, Arnie Zane, before forming the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982. But for the theater world, Jones said, "They are two very different cultures. In the dance world, there is a real bias against Broadway in my generation. Maybe I had that prejudice myself." His first venture into theatre was choreographing Spring Awakening on Broadway, winning the Tony Award in 2006. Fela is his second work, this time as not only choreographer, but director and co-librettist.
Jones took great liberties with the story of Fela, deleting whole sections of his life to keep him the magical, mystical man rather than the normally flawed human being he was. He wanted to show the power of his music and words and not the things that were complete opposites of what he was preaching. So to say this musical is a biography would be incorrect. Rather it is a "pick and choose" accumulation of a man's life, featuring many of Fela Kuti's most captivating songs.
The musical divides the action into two distinct acts, the first act being the concert where Fela Kuti both interjects parts of his life directly to the audience and then plays with his band while the crowd and his "queens" dance around him. The music, with inclusions of traditional Yoruba chant, a hymn by his father and bits of James Brown and Frank Sinatra, all tell of the Kuti's musical influences.
"Originality/Yellow Fever" spoke of the way the Nigerians were being blindly led away from their traditions and into an artificial lifestyle, while "Trouble Sleep" alluded to Kuti's fear that he is not living up to his mother's respect.
Funmilayo's face in the portrait "moved" to look down on her son, a truly eerie vision. The last half of Act One focused on Kuti's awakening to political power, his meeting with Panther Party member, Sandra Isadore (changing her last name from Smith) in "Lover." In 1977, Fela makes a biographical film called The Black President, and the aspiration wheels begin to turn with his and Sandra's declaration to turn everything "Upside Down."
"Expensive S*it" ranted on the depravity of the Nigerian upper class while both "Pipeline" and "I.T.T (International Thief Thief)" rallied against the world's oil companies who came to Nigeria spewing words of promise and hope, only to undermine the people and devastate their homeland. Video of a country lay to waste and logos of our own and other countries' oil companies were projected on the back wall. The energy of the nightclub crowd was now at fever pitch and the audience was left in overwhelm. By Act Two, the concert was in overdrive.
Going back and forth in Fela's life, he and Sandra began to get politically savvy, stating "Water No Get Enemy," meaning that if you make yourself as indispensible as water, the people will need you and your haters will only be made foolish. Sounds like the beginnings of a political campaign if you ask me. For Fela, the final straw for the militia came with his recording of the album and song, "Zombie," that so infuriated the government, both because it became an instant smash hit in Nigeria, but also because it attacked the Nigerian soldiers, using the zombie metaphor in connection to the military's methods.
As Fela was in celebration, having married several of his queens with the song "Na Poi," a reported 1000 soldiers viciously attacked Fela's Kalakuta Republic and its commune – "Sorrow Tears and Blood." He cried to "Iba Orisha," a Yoruba spirit, and then, with "Shakara," he lambasted the braggarts and blowhards who boasted falsely about their personal power and influence. I wondered if he was also repenting to his mother for his own self-absorbed power plays and falsehoods. It is during this time, that Fela dreamed of his ancestors, his mother, and the scene became a hallucination in white, from the ancient tribal dress of his ancestors' gods to he and Funmilayo in white dress, she in full buba and head-tie.
As she sang "Rain," the projection encompassed her in a full-body halo, its shafts of light jutting out beyond the back wall and onto the columns and sides. It was the most stunning, breath-taking portion of the entire musical. The final scenes I will leave open, but to say that the title of the last section is B.Y.O.C. (Bring Your Own Coffin).
With such a powerful message must come powerful actors, singers, dancers and musicians. Jones and his staff cast a fairly small international group for a musical of this caliber; therefore each and every member must be at the top of their game and their craft.
The ensemble of thirteen men and women played many of the people in Kuti's life, from his queens to his commune residents, to the nightclub crowd. Ever onstage, their dancing, as would befit someone choreographed by the likes of Mr. Jones, was mind-blowing. Grabbing steps from tribal ritual, jazz moves, 70s disco and funk, they stomped, whirled, grooved and enhanced Fela's songs like no tap-dancing chorus line could ever accomplish. I was astounded at how swiftly they could go offstage and be on the balcony in seconds. It often was difficult, partially in the dim lighting, to keep up with them, and they made it seem as though the entire nightclub was filled to capacity.
Ten musicians filled the Winspear Opera House like they were an entire symphony. Powerful, with an ongoing, hard-driving beat as befits Fela's signature music, they were the very heart of the musical and it would never have been as vibrant or as intense were they any different. Using the multiple guitars and horns of highlife, the ever-pulsing rhythm of the drums and the guitar sounds of Cuba and Africa, the band, under the direction of Greg Gonzalez, were ever bit an character in this production and well worth coming to hear.
My biggest disappointment within the musical was not being able to truly understand the lyrics. Fela made the decision to sing his songs in Pidgin English so that his music could be understood by people all over Africa, where the local languages spoken are very diverse and numerous. But for American audience members, you could only pick a word or two here or there, hence the flashes of lyrics displayed on the back wall.
It did not affect the presentation, only the nuances for people who do not know the man's background or ideals. Out of the cast, only six are highlighted as "leads."
Within the six, only three have solos or duets, and then all sing with the entire company. Ismael Kouyate, playing Ismael (convenient), performed a "blink and you'll miss it" imitation of James Brown with "I Got the Feeling." He did it well but never allowed the audience to know much more about him than that. Featured in the Yoruba chant, afterwards he's just another member of the crowd.
Gelan Kambert plays J.K. Braimah, who helped produce the film and tap danced like he was Savion Glover's twin – again, it was all too brief an appearance, and then he too melded back into the fold. Rasaan-Elijah "Talu" Green is featured as Mustafa, stepping up front to frenetically play his Djembe drum and he added energy and depth to the music.
Michelle Williams, originally of Destiny's Child but now an accomplished musical theater actress and singer, she took on the title role in Broadway's Aida in 2003 to critical acclaim. She then took on her greatest challenge, acting in Broadway's The Color Purple, portraying Shug Avery. In 2009, she made theater history by becoming the first African American woman to play the lead role of Roxie Hart in London's West End production of Chicago. She then reprised the role on Broadway for a limited engagement in 2010.
Here, Williams plays one of Fela's many, many love interests as the American Black Panther member, Sandra Isadore. And while she did a most adequate job, her performance was not on par with all the media hype of her being included in the musical. I understand the producers need to have "a name" to sell tickets – films and other Broadway shows do it all the time – but the role was minor at best, having only three featured songs, one a duet with Fela and the other two duets with the company. Not to downplay her talent, Williams was underplayed and misused in this role.
The role of Funmilayo has been performed by some of the great singers in musical theater. Lillias White originated the role on Broadway and received a Tony nomination as "Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical." Ms. Patti LaBelle replaced White but only got to perform the role for a little over three months until it closed two days into 2011. I know both those women performed the role magnificently, but neither could have been as magnificent as Melanie Marshall, a British actress, who played the role at the National Theatre in London and now reprises her role of Fela's mother on tour.
Classically trained, her deeply resonating voice fairly shook the theater walls she was so in control of her notes. Portraying a ghostly apparition of Fela's, the role required her to move slowly across the balcony and appear on the top of stairs. Only in a couple of scenes, mainly in the Second Act, her appearance was powerful enough to demand attention. There were moments I envisioned Evita, singing to Argentina's oppressed in much the same way.
Singing "Rain" to her son and the gods, she held tight to the emotion of the moment while reducing the audience to complete silence – that was the greatness of her performance. As she walked across the balcony to disappear at the end, my vision was of a godly queen making a final appearance before dissolving back to her mystic realm.
"Tour de force" is the first phrase that popped into my mind at the end of the musical for the incredible performance of Fela by Adesola Osakalumi. On stage almost entirely, singing more than 18 of the 26 songs with reprises, he simply never stopped. His stage presence was mesmerizing, his singing strong and full of life, and I believe he was probably channeling Fela the entire time. Tall and muscular, he looked mighty good in his turquoise or coral jumpsuit, and when his shirt was off, the women in the audience whooed and oohed.
His acting was masterful, as most of his dialogue was in narration form, recalling his past life or in direct conversation with the audience, much as singers do in concert when they need to take a singing break so they smooze with the audience. Some of his commentary and questions were hysterical and had the audience responding loudly. That was the book's intent, to include us as part of the nightclub crowd, willing to talk back to the man we came to see. Constantly harassed by the military, at one point, Fela asks for the house lights to come up a bit, then bluntly asked, "Who here has been to jail?" Mainly there were lots of giggles and turning around to see who would confess. When not many hands went up, he then said, "Oh, you're all innocents! ... Innocents can go to jail," to which many chimed an "uh huh" or "yes." Can we say Amen?!
He then lit up the biggest spliff I've ever seen – twice the length of the largest cigar, and began to puff away. He led the audience in a chant of "Puff, puff, pass," and those in the know laughed freely. His performance as a saxophone player, though not actually playing it, was as sexually potent as if he had been actually playing.
Osakalumi felt so at ease on stage, sitting on the edge to talk to those in the first few rows, still as Fela, he reeled the audience to him in much the same way Fela drew his country to him with his music and his disarming ways. He would have made quite the politician and Osakalumi fairly transcends the man.
This is not to say the Fela Anikulapo Kuti was the savior of his people. The man had great faults and many demons. As I stated earlier, this musical does not touch on or lightly skims over many aspects of his life and that made the story lean heavily to one side. While worshipping his mother, he had a hedonistic sexual attitude towards women.
A year after the fall of the Kalakuta Republic, he married 27 women, mostly his dancers, composers and singers. Later he adopted a rotation system of keeping only 12 simultaneous wives! He continued with his ongoing political desires and his death from complications of AIDS was hidden from the world, only to be announced by his doctor brother, an ardent AIDS activist. Such were some of the "irrelevant" parts left from the pages of Fela!, and whether the knowledge would have helped or hindered the production is up to the individual.
Fela! is loaded with drug references and presumed usage, strong language, sexual content, and indications of violence. Several audience members left at intermission and I won't say this musical is suited to everyone. While definitely not for children, I believe it is a theater work of such importance that you would be cheating yourself to not be open to the experience. The most unusual theater piece I've seen, it still weaves the same common thread of most art.
Love, hate, disappointment, joy, disillusionment, exuberance, sorrow, pain are all parts of every person's human experience. Fela! was also heart-warming, disturbing, powerful, and many times, hilarious.
The Winspear Opera House is a gorgeous venue in which to witness a production of unparalleled quality and sound.
Bill T. Jones' staged his vision of the global phenomenon that was Fela Kuti and revealed his controversial life as artist, political activist and revolutionary musician while at the same time celebrating his pioneering music and commitment to the cause of universal human dignity.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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