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Published: 2011/02/05
by John Zinkand

Featured Column: Fela!

Last weekend I decided to check out the simulcast (well, slightly-less-than-live re-broadcast, in this case) of Bill T Jones’ new musical Fela! The musical is playing now at London’s National Theater and through a series called National Theater Live, is simulcast or re-broadcast in select theaters across the US and the world. I’m not much of a theater going guy, although I do see a few plays and/or musicals per year. But when I heard about Fela! and the National Theater Live series, I knew this was one I had to check out. The concept alone is intriguing as you get to watch a musical in a prestigious British theater almost live and in real time along with thousands and thousands of people across the entire world. I saw the production at the Third Rail Repertory Theater located in the World Trade Center in downtown Portland, OR.

The screen where they show the production is at the little auditorium where The Third Rail Rep usually performs their live plays and musicals. But for this event it was turned into a movie theater. As I walked into the venue, there was already action on the big screen. We were seeing inside the National Theater as the 12-piece band Afro-punk band Antibalas played music and the people in the theater were taking their seats and milling about. Slowly but surely additional drummers and colorful African costume-clad dancers walked onto the stage. Finally actor Sahr Ngaujah took the stage as Fela Anikulapo Kuti and we were off. The show started dynamically in a flurry of music, dance, and rhythm that was an incredible and on-going spectacle from start to finish.

The stage was ornately decorated. There were multiple levels and platforms for the dancers to perform upon which they used to their fullest potential. A giant screen behind the stage was used for projecting images, lyrics, and other dazzling visual effects. Objects hung from the ceiling and the walls were plastered with artwork, many portraits of great activist like Mandela and MLK, and a huge portrait of Fela Kuti’s late great mother Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti. Finally, a huge sign hangs from the front of the stage that reads “The Shrine.” The Shrine was Fela’s theater in Lagos, Nigeria that he played in many times over the years, and the musical starts off as a concert at The Shrine.

First and foremost, Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti is amazing. He becomes Fela in this role and dances, swaggers, sings, and plays trumpet and sax like a man possessed. He is confident, boisterous, funny, and serious at varying times through the performance. But most importantly, he is believable. For two hours and twenty minutes, this man is Fela Kuti. The basic set-up for the production is that we are at a concert at The Shrine and Fela is performing for us and also narrating his life story between songs. We learn of his history, his mother’s activism, his going away to study music in London (although he told his mother he wanted to study medicine), visiting America in the turbulent late 60s, then returning to Nigeria to merge all the musical influences of jazz, funk, Cuban, and African into a sound and style now known as Afro-beat music.

While the first act is mostly joyous and humorous, the second act focuses on Fela’s as political activist dealing with the harsh military regime in his home country of Nigeria. He repeatedly tells the audience at The Shrine that this will be his last show because he and his band are leaving Nigeria – it’s just too dangerous for him there. But after a mystical scene that feels almost like a dream or vision-quest, Fela’s deceased mother appears and urges him to stay. We also are told of the raid on Fela’s compound where many members of his band where beaten, raped, and worse. During the same raid, Fela’s mother Funmilayo was thrown out of a second story window and killed. The portrayal of Fela and thousands of followers carrying his mother’s coffin up to the head of the military dictatorship’s front door in protest is a powerful sequence.

And while the second act does get a little heavier, the overall vibe of the performance is exuberance! The costumed dancers are just phenomenal and their frenetic dancing, shaking, and spinning is a visual feast for the eyes. The infectious grooves of Fela’s music pulsing through the speakers for the entire show had the folks in the theater grooving and clapping after each song (and nearly up and dancing, but not quite as this was a 2pm showing that saw mostly older folks in the house). The fact that Sahr Ngaujah as Fela switched seamlessly from dancing, singing, telling a funny story to the crowd, and playing both sax and trumpet was mesmerizing. His stage presence was beyond powerful. I did not know some of the details of the late, great musician’s life but have always loved his music, so this colorful introduction to the artist’s biography was interesting and engaging. And while some details of his controversial life are glossed over (like his 27 wives, his being considered a sexist, and his death due to Aids complications in the late 90s), for anyone who loves the infectious grooves of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s music, this is something not to be missed.

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