Music is the driving force in the heart of those who dream for a better world in Bill T. Jones’ vivacious, unique and new Off-Broadway musical, “Fela!,” which ran from July 29 to September 21 at 37 Arts theatre in New York City. It tells the story of the famous Nigerian Afrobeat musician and political activist, Fela Kuti, set within his club, the Shrine. In this production, Fela struggles with leaving Nigeria or staying to fight the oppression of his people, while also being haunted by the spirit of his mother.
What made this production different than others musicals, like “South Pacific, is that “Fela!” centers around the music guiding the story of Kuti’s life instead of the story guiding the music. “Fela!” had smooth transitions between each song and never did the songs feel forced or awkward, such that you would want them to end.
Similar to the way in which “Mamma Mia!” and “Jersey Boys” were created, “Fela!” had a musical history to it. This allowed it to be much more intriguing and gave the chance for exploration outside of the performance itself.
Since music was such an important part of Kuti’s life and how he inspired others, it made sense that the show had more of an intimate concert or club atmosphere than that of other shows. The audience became a part of the club, The Shrine, while the rest of the world was lost outside for three hours.
Many became easily mesmerized by colorful paintings on the walls, the swirling blend of thunderous horns, pulsating drums, funky guitars, and sultry singers and dancers. In the first act, the Sahr Ngaujah and his dancers asked the audience members to stand and join in the choreography (created by director, Bill Jones) of the hip movements. This part alone was amusing as I watched young and old, black and white, the rhythmically inclined and the uncoordinated try to follow dancing on stage.
“Fela!” often felt like a hip-hop performance as Kuti repeated “yeah, yeah” and asked for the audience to repeat it back to him. I almost waited for him to say “hey, ho” to everyone. The party atmosphere was parallel to the excitement found in the musical “Hairspray.”
Also, the interaction between the cast members enhanced the energy of “Fela!” Although the musical was rehearsed, the singers and dancers gave a sense of spontaneity and genuineness to the choreography and musical numbers, and individuality to each performer. The live 12-member band, Antibalas, was on stage with the other cast members, allowing them to interact with each other, unlike other productions in which the band or orchestra is no where to be seen.
Sahr Ngaujah, who played Fela Kuti, was definitely the main attraction of the musical. He exuded the same confidence, talent (plays saxophone and trumpet), integrity and mannerisms that Fela had in real life. Ngaujah was also able to express the complex man Fela was, such as how his confidence battled with his doubt and fear of staying in Nigeria and his integrity opposed his marriages to the Queens and smoking marijuana on stage.
However, I wished another character, the spirit of Fumilayo Kuti, played by Abena Koomso, had more of the spotlight. This choice to keep her in the shadows reduced the importance of her character being there, and the idea that she was a spirit in the beginning did not correlate with the later scene depicting the raid in which she died. The spotlight should have been put on her, especially with such a beautiful voice.
Yet, all of this was in the first act alone. Although the first act of “Fela!” is known for its fun, carnival aspect, the second act was definitely when the musical became more powerful in terms of political awareness and depth of his story. Moreover, this act included more of other multimedia aspects, such as clothing, film, projector, lights and movement of the stage.
In songs like “Water No Get Enemy,” “Zombie” and “Coffin for Head of State,” the show expressed how music can strengthen people in face of adversity and give them courage in face of their enemies. Some believe that music that is political cannot be also catchy and energetic, but with a song like “Zombie,” it was proven to be untrue. Kuti’s songs made his message more memorable for the average Nigerian, including the women in the marketplace who call the soldiers, “zombie.”
Not only were there changes in the significance of the songs, there were also changes in the wardrobe of the cast. In act one, the Queens wore what looked like African club outfits that were revealing and were more like the costumes women wear in the West Indian Day Parade. However, in act two, the Queens wore traditional African garb as a way to show the pride in their country. The three major uses of multimedia in act two were captivating, too. In one scene, the screen only showed the torso of the Nigerian general as his overbearing voice speaks over Fela, who appears to be tortured by the invisible hand of the general.
The second was even more dramatic with the room filling with silence and the spotlight on each cast member. The screen displayed what happened to each person in the raid on Fela’s compound in 1977, which resulted in his mother’s death (she was thrown from a second story window). Each assault of rape, genital and bodily mutilation and maiming was horrifying to read.
The climatic scene in which Fela crosses over to be in contact with his mother, Fumilayo, is paranormal and ethereal vibe to it. Dressed in ballet-inspired white costumes, a tribal dance takes places to open the spiritual world. The use of flashing white lights (lighting by Robert Wierzel) alone made me feel as if I was being transported into this heavenly world. Additionally, the use of the stairs to show Kuti’s accession to meet his mother was effective.
The show far exceeded my expectations and was definitely on par with that of a Broadway musical. It opened my eyes to who Fela Kuti was and the legacy he left in Africa and the world.
At a time with so many political issues, protests and riots occuring, there are few today who have the same passion, potency and leadership that Fela once had. Fela Kuti’s musical and political influence among the people of Nigeria has often been compared to that of Bob Marley in Jamaica and James Brown in America with the Civil Rights Movement. This production revealed how political action and life itself can be enriched through the power of music and how it can give us the strength to persevere.
Fela: 4.5 out of 5