Fela! Jolts Broadway

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By Heather Bent Tamir

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a mold breaker, a musical innovator, and political firebrand. He didn’t just march to his own beat; he invented it. That beat was Afrobeat, a beguiling blend of jazz, funk, pop, and African rhythms that is now jolting Broadway like a thunderclap. Big, bold, and African but with no cinematic bloodlines (like Lion King), no well-known musical score, and no celebrities on the marquee, ‘Fela!’ on Broadway is proof that there is no pat formula for first-rate entertainment.The setting is Fela’s last concert at his nightclub, the Shrine, in Lagos in the late 1970s. Although at the height of his career, Fela fears for his life and has decided the fight is no longer worth the cost. Born into Nigeria’s privileged classes, Fela wrote and performed in the pidgin language of the lower classes, reflecting a complicated and often contradictory personality. He had been constantly harassed, jailed, and tortured for his incendiary lyrics attacking corruption and dictatorship, and for seeking to free Nigerians, and Africans more broadly, from the last vestiges of colonialism.

The Broadway production at the Eugene O’Neill Theater transports the audience to another time and place with the help of an evocative set and Sahr Ngaujah as Fela (alternating in the physically demanding role with Kevin Mambo) who commands the stage with swagger, wit, and charm.  Early on, Fela sends the message loud and clear that Afrobeat is, first and foremost, dance music as he gets everyone involved in the art of telling time with the hips—a hip-swiveling number known as the “Clock.” Dance numbers continue to explode with a bevy of colorfully and scantily clad women who play Fela’s “queens” (his entourage of women, many of whom were his wives) and backed up by Antibalas, a Brooklyn-based Afrobeat group who expertly perform songs from the Fela hit parade.

The show builds toward a key flashback, told vividly through multimedia technology, as soldiers storm Fela’s compound and perform all kinds of brutal acts on Fela’s women and fatally injure his mother, Funmilayo (played with dignified and defiant grace by Lillias White). In a supernatural turn, the story achieves its arc as Fela crosses into the next world and communes with his mother. Lighting effects and stagecraft create a surreal and spectacular other world.  Fela comes to understand that he must stay and continue the fight, using music as his weapon.

Fela’s crisis of confidence is a work of fiction.  No one knows whether he had personal moments of doubt. By adding such an aspect the creators have linked Fela to the shared human experience.  What is known is that Fela Anikulapo Kuti, an international star who became revered around the world, could have left Nigeria, but never did.

Director and Choreographer Bill T. Jones; Producers Stephen Hendel, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.  At the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th Street, Manhattan, New York City.

Heather Bent Tamir lives in the New York area and writes about the arts.