“Fela!” is an extraordinary musical experience that requires your participation from the start, otherwise you won’t feel it - or even get it. Like in the opening scene where Fela, played by the brilliant Sahr Nguajah, sings the politically charged song “Everything Scatter,” and commands you to rise up from your seat and feel the rhythm of Afrobeat. At first I didn’t know what to do. Is this a concert? Or is it a musical? Should I rise up? Or should I stay seated? In no time, I rose to my feet and began to clap and shimmy.
"Everything Scatter" is a very energetic song about two passengers on a bus who get into an argument and reach no agreement. It's no wonder why the show begins with this powerful tune about the state of African affairs.
This story, about the life of Nigerian singer and bandleader Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, takes place at a performance at the Shrine, a nightclub that he owned. The stage is graffiti marked with deep red, green, and yellow color combinations. The production is immense, consisting of an 11-piece band that captures the late Fela's music down to the beat. Not including the band, the 25-member cast consists of singers and dancers. The costumes, a blend of traditional Nigerian cloth and polyester, perfectly fit the look and feel of Fela and his entourage. This is Fela in the flesh, but unfortunately on this night he has some bad news for the audience. “Tonight is the last concert we will ever play here at The Shrine,” he says. "I will be leaving Nigeria."
The time is 1978, several months after the death of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who was thrown from a window by Nigerian police during a raid of Fela’s home. His mother figures prominently in this show. There is a life-size image of her projected onto a screen above the stage where she hovers like a ghost. It's a bit uncanny but that's the point.
In this scene, his mother’s voice makes a powerful introduction but we’re not supposed to hear her just yet. It’s the voice in Fela’s head, a voice that haunts him throughout the show.
Fela was inspired by his mother, played by the British vocalist Melanie Marshall. Songs like "Trouble Sleep" and "Rain" are gracefully sang and illustrated in this play and highlight the relationship that they had. Even though Marshall said in an interview that she had never heard of Fela before taking on this role, she sang a Funmilayo into existence that I will never forget. I got a tender feeling seeing Fela and his mother emerge like they did on stage. Funmilayo was a teacher, activist, and the granddaughter of a freed African slave from the Americas.
The charismatic Fela tells the audience how his life got to the point of having to leave Nigeria through a medley of his songs. Beginning with the pulsating song “Breaking It Down," he takes us on a riveting musical journey through his career, from how he was introduced to jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, Cuban, and how he fused it all together and gave birth to Afrobeat. There are several screen projections on the set where moving images of civil unrest, news clippings, digital texts, and images from Fela’s life are thrown to add texture to his story. Because his music inspired social and political havoc in Nigeria, Fela was constantly harassed by the police and was arrested nearly 200 times. In one telling scene, Fela and cast illustrate the time he was arrested on suspicion that he ingested marijuana. Nguajah captures Fela's wit and deadpan sense of humor very well as he explains the time waiting in jail for the evidence to show up in his excrement.
Fela! brings other influential people in the singer's life to life, like the African American singer Sandra Iszador played by Ismael Kouyate. Iszador introduced Fela to Black revolutionary thinking, which fuels the fist-raising song “Upside Down.” Fela’s queens, elegantly clad in colorful tank tops, waist beads, micro-skirts and traditional Nigerian attire invigorate the stage, punctuating the rhythm of his music in their swift and sultry hip moves.
The dance, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, is hypnotic and bound to put you into a trance, especially in The Dance of the Orisas, a high point in the musical where the stage becomes a glowing spiritual plane and the Egungun (spirits of the dead) appear. These fluffy white ghosts bear fluorescent orange tribal markings and lead Fela into a ritualistic dance characterized by the rapid drumbeat and upbeat tempo of the song “Shakara.” This is where Fela makes contact with his mother and, sort of, figures it all out.
Fela never moved to America but the thought of leaving his homeland inspired this highly spirited musical about the remarkable life of the father of Afrobeat.
See Fela!, a production conceived of by Bill T. Jones, James Lewis and Stephen Hendel. Inspired by the biography Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore, Fela! is currently playing at the Cutler Majestic through Sunday, May 6, 2012.
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About the AuthorBridgit Brown
Bridgit Brown is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Emerson College ('98). She was a Fulbright Lecturing and Research Scholar in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, and her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Bay State Banner, Color Magazine, BasicBlack.org: Black Perspectives Now, Colorlines of Architecture, Exhale Magazine, Ibbetson Street Magazine, and Somerville Review.