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Fela!

Fela’s Funk, Heart & Soul:
A Call to Good Times and Social Justice

Music by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, additional lyrics by Jim Lewis. Additional music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McClean.
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Harmon Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011, (seats D–112&113, center stalls)
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones

Art, good art, is a mind-changer. It can expose you to new ideas and old ideas resurrected, new talents and old talents previously unexperienced, and great people and movements outside your own typical sphere of time and place.

Fela! was all these things.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company brought the touring version of this Tony Award-winning musical—executive produced by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith—to Harmon Hall because, wrote STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn in his program notes, “By exploring the world of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, we also explore the impact that artists and art can have on world politics and civil movements abroad and, closer to home, in our nation’s capital. This exotic journey is a testament to the value of artistic expression as a whole.”

Merely drawing the audience Fela! did was suitable enough reason for STC to host this show. Around us sat people who behaved as if they’d never set foot in a classical-oriented theater (they behaved well, just with the uncertainty of people adjusting to a new environment). Perhaps they came away from this show intent on returning to STC for a bit of Midsummer magic. Around us, too, were a few familiar faces of STC subscribers, who behaved as if they’d never heard of Fela or, particularly, the Afrobeat music he pioneered. Count us among the latter, and we came away from this show intent to learn more about the man and get his music.

Set in his Lagos nightclub, The Shrine, Fela (Sahr Nguajah) invited us, the audience, to party while he recounted his biography. Son of a minister father and teacher mother, Fela decided to become a musician. He studied in London amd attempted various musical styles, most of which failed to catch fire in his homeland Nigeria. Then he traveled through the United States where he was exposed to many more different types of music, as well as the politics of Black Panther acolyte Sandra (Paulette Ivory), whom he married. Upon his return to Nigeria, Fela developed Afrobeat, an amalgam of musical styles but mostly a marriage of African beats with Cuban jazz and funk rhythm. He also married this music to politics, and the second half of the show delved more fully into this segment of his story.

Two particular scenes best illustrated this shift in tone. Early in the show, Fela asked the audience to stand so he could teach us how to tell time, with our hips serving as a clock (going from 2 to 7 is tricky, but sexy). But the heart of the show’s second half had Fela describing the Nigerian army’s assault on his compound. Various members of his hitherto good-timing crew were spotlighted while photos of their real counterparts flashed above the stage alongside their first-person accounts of the physical and sexual abuse and torture they suffered. Each story elicited gasps and groans of sympathy from the audience—after all, the show had made these characters people we enjoyed hanging with. But the biggest reaction of horror came with the account of soldiers dragging Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, up to the second floor, hanging her out a window, then dropping her to her death.

This moved us into the soul of the show as Fela visited his mother’s spirit and learned from her his duty to stay in Nigeria and fight the repression perpetrated by home-grown dictators and foreign capitalists (i.e., Big Oil). The show concluded with a rousing empowerment number, “B.Y.O.C. (Bring Your Own Coffin),” and the visual metaphor of the cast members (21 in reality but in this scene seeming like hundreds) stacking up coffins emblazoned with names and concepts.

The music alone would have made this an enjoyable evening, with Fela’s jamming band on stage and lithe dancers occupying the air above the stage or rhythmically writhing on its floor. But elevating the show to something sensational was Ngaujah as Fela. Good looking, brimming with energy, charm, and profanity, Ngaujah played the audience like an Earth, Wind & Fire version of Freddy Mercury. He also played a mean trumpet and the most frenetically acrobatic saxophone I recall ever hearing. At one point he stood off to the side of the stage, blaring forth a sax solo while the dancers did their things, then he stepped back off stage and continued to play as stagehands toweled him down and squirted water in his mouth between blows on his horn. It helped that Ngaujah was channeling the legendary behavior and attitude of Fela himself as well as singing Fela’s music.

Meanwhile, Melanie Marshall as Funmilayo, Fela’s mother, twice brought the house down with her arias. In the second, “Rain,” during the Dance of the Orisas when Fela visited her spirit, Marshall combined her operatic voice with deep soul and African tonal modulations that inspired a truly spiritual experience for us as well as for her son.

Afterward, we departed the theater, singing “Zombie” and “Expensive S***” in our heads, sashaying our shoulders, and telling time with our hips. We also departed better acquainted with a great mover and more aware of Nigereans’ plight. We’d not only experienced a good show but great art, both Fela’s and Fela!’s.

Eric Minton
September 27, 2011

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