FELA! the Musical
26 October 2011 2 CommentsFELA! the Musical
At the Canon Theatre to November 6
By Anya Wassenberg
In a word, FELA! is fabulous. Broadway veteran Bill T. Jones has created a unique theatrical construct that erupts on stage in a vibrant whirl of colour and movement set to the insistently danceable pulse of Afrobeat, the music created by its namesake. The Canon Theatre becomes Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, the nightclub founded by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and lights up with an energy that does justice to the legacy of this musical and political icon.
The show starts as the musicians – a 10-piece band under leader Aaron Johnson – filter on stage and begin to play. The scenario is this: it’s Fela’s last show at the Shrine. He’s leaving Nigeria for safer- and hopefully more profitable – shores after the death of his mother, Funmilayo. As part of his nightclub show, he talks to the audience and tells some of his story as it leads up to the fateful raid on his compound in 1977 by the Nigerian military, during which his mother, a political firebrand and feminist, was thrown from a window. She died about a year later of her injuries, setting up the “present day” of the musical itself.
Fans of Fela will love it, but you won’t have to know the background to enjoy it. The narrative delves into the origins of his music, a synthesis of jazz and West African highlife that germinated during studies in London and came to full fruition after he hears James Brown and his dirty guitars back home. As he explains, the bass is the real key to the music. Later, he talks about his sojourn in America, where he meets Sandra, the Black Power activist who ignited his political ideas. He returned to Nigeria wielding a heady combination of politics and music that was hugely popular and set him up for his violent confrontation with the country’s military rulers. Here, projections give us the harrowing words of the survivors, including a woman who had a knife and bottle later removed from her body at the hospital.
The show glosses over his real life and well documented misogyny – Fela the man was never afraid to speak his mind – but does reveal the dichotomy of his character in that he was also heavily influenced by the women in his life. He famously married 27 women at the same time, most of them his back up dancers; you may have dim views about polygamy, but these were no shrinking violets. They were proud co-revolutionaries. (In real life, he described the mass marriage as an act of solidarity with the women who’d suffered with him during the raid.)
book, developed by Jones over some five years or more, offers a skilful blending of anecdotes and narration with the “real time” action of the play, all of it constantly erupting into song and dance.
The set and costumes are a riot of colour, aided by projections above the set and on screens to either side that sometime showing newspaper clippings that follow the stories on stage.
After a year on Broadway and tours to London and Lagos, this cast is as solid as it gets. It’s a real tour de force for star Sahr Ngaujah as Fela, who’s talking, singing or dancing for the majority of the 2+ hours of the show, with notable contributions by Melanie Marshall as the ghost of Funmilayo and Paulette Ivory as Sandra. The smaller roles and ensemble players are also uniformly spectacular – there’s often more on stage than you can take in at one time, an explosion of kinetic energy.
Perhaps best of all, you can leave your ideas about a staid, quiet evening of theatre at home – this is an interactive performance. Sahr not only talks to the audience, he demands a “yeah yeah” now and then, singing occasionally, and he even had us up dancing at one point as best we could in the confines of our seats.
At the end, the packed house rose on their feet immediately for a standing ovation. You really must get to see it.
THE CREATIVE TEAM
FELA! was conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel based on the life of Fela Kuti. The design team includes Scenic and Costume Designer Marina Draghici, Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel, Sound Designer Robert Kaplowitz and Projection Designer Peter Nigrini.
Starring Sahr Ngaujah as Fela, Melanie Marshall as Funmilayo, Paulette Ivory as Sandra, Ismael Kouyate as Ismael, Gelan Lambert as the Tap Dancer & Egungun, Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green as Djembe-‘Mustafa’
Ensemble: Sherinne Kayra Anderson, Jonathan Andre, Cindy Belliot, Nandi Bhebhe, Catia Mota Da Cruz, Nicole Chantal de Weever, Jacqui Dubois, Poundo Gomis, Jeffrey Page, Oneika Phillips, Thierry Picaut, Jermaine Rowe, Daniel Soto, Jill Marie Vallery, Iris Wilson, Aimee Graham Wodobode