If ever a show's name deserved the all-caps, exclamation mark treatment, FELA! is it. Both the man and the multiple-Tony Award-winning musical about him are larger than life, spectacles equally spiritual, sensual and cerebral.
Nigerian afrobeat creator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's life had two acts, and so does this show, though Sierra Leonean-American actor Sahr Ngaujah, in the role of Kuti, refers to them onstage as "sets."
That's no accident, as FELA! takes the form of one evening -- the very last concert, as it happens -- in the "Shrine," Kuti's legendary nightclub/commune compound on the outskirts of Lagos.
Nights at the Shrine were rambling, wee-hours, weed-scented affairs, devoted in equal parts to Kuti's music, the dancing of his many Queens, and his own acidly humorous, bluntly honest polemics in support of pan-African nationalism and flaying colonialism and assimilation and globalist capitalism, its lingering hangovers.
The show captures this roiling stew masterfully, even if the narrative is somewhat confusing in parts. (Though narrative most definitely takes a backseat to the sheer exquisite majesty of the performance.)
After a ten-minute prelude from FELA!'s orchestra (Brooklyn's Antibalas), a squad of lithe dancers, dressed in traditional Yoruba attire, infiltrates the stage, and then the man himself comes bounding to the forefront.
Kuti proceeds to tell the story of his early life in Lagos: A son of a prominent minister father and Funmilayo, his proud activist mother, he was sent to London to train as a doctor, as his three brothers before him had done.
No stethoscopes for Fela. Once in the imperial city, he became enraptured with the nightlife. He started a band, and began soaking up influences from all over the world: the two sides of cool represented by Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis and the scratchy guitars of James Brown's Famous Flames and JBs. To these he added the then-popular "high life" music of the cities of Nigeria and Ghana, the thunderous drums and the Orisha-honoring call-and-response chants of his native Yoruba culture, and finally overlaid the whole thing with a huge and utterly stately, baritone sax-laden horn section.
And voilà, here was something new, something that belonged to Kuti: Afrobeat.
And at first it was party music, because despite the militant beliefs Funmilayo tried to instill in him, he would later admit that he was a hedonistic party boy, fonder of igbo (Yoruba for weed) and "pussy" than making political statements. (The show does not stint on profanity, so be warned.) And then one night in 1969, while in Los Angeles, Kuti met and became enraptured by American Black Panther Sandra Smith, portrayed in a skin-tingling, neo-soul-tinged star turn by British actress Paulette Ivory. (EDIT: Ivory was ill; the role was actually performed by her understudy Cindy Belliot.)
Despite his worship of Funmilayo -- who appears as an ethereal guiding spirit throughout the show -- Kuti's attitude towards women had been utterly cavalier, perhaps even more so than his flippant attitude toward world affairs. Smith changed all that, and it was through her retelling that Kuti would finally come to grasp what his mother had been trying to tell him all along.
Soon enough he would be railing against the British colonialists, or as he put it, Nigeria's "tea-drinking guests." At first things were all right, but then, as with all guests, "things start going missing," Kuti wryly explains. "Petroleum. Gems. People. And all they left us in return was Jesus and gonorrhea." (Over time, Kuti came to reject both Christianity and Islam as corrosive cultural imports and chose instead to embrace traditional Yoruba beliefs. Years of sectarian strife in Nigeria lends credence to that view.)
By the opening of the second set, Kuti is a full-fledged radical, an enemy of the nascent Nigerian petro-state. (Shell Oil, a huge beneficiary of Nigeria's mineral largesse, is both thanked before the show and then flayed alongside Enron and Monsanto as an "international thief" in one of the musical numbers.)
And yet there was still a part of Kuti that simply wanted to enjoy life as an African megastar, to move to London or America and settle into a rock-star life. Whenever he wavers, his mother sets him straight, tells him there can be no retreat.
And so he grows ever more militant. Finally, he writes "Zombie," a song likening African soldiers to mindless monsters capable of doing only their masters' bidding, no matter how cruel. "Zombie" becomes a monster hit in the marketplaces of Lagos, Accra, Nairobi: everywhere in Anglophone Africa, the masses could relate. The song touched off a riot in Ghana, and the Nigerian government tightened its noose on Kuti, finally raiding the Shrine with 1,000 soldiers one night in 1977.
Several of Kuti's queens (he would eventually marry 27 of these women at the same time) were raped and otherwise brutalized, and his beloved mother was thrown off a second-story balcony and would die from her injuries.
Up to that point, the show had been a riot of color and sound, a feast that defies your senses to take in. Director Bill T. Jones's Tony-winning choreography pulls off the masterful feat of not looking choreographed at all -- there are dance circles wherein humorous sexual tension explodes into utter jubilation; they compress and explode like...fucking galaxies of sound, motion and color, and the music of Antibalas and assorted drummers and Orisha chanters and majestic griot-singers raises every follicle on your body.
And then comes the raid and its aftermath. All is bleak. As a single bell tolls, we read of the rape of one of Kuti's wives while she was on the toilet, how the soldiers hacked the pubic hair off another, how they carved their initials in the backside of a third.
After Funmilayo's death, Kuti wanted to know if she had ever wavered, had ever in those last few seconds questioned whether it had all been worth the fate she was enduring. To find out, he consults his guiding Orishas, and they guide him to the spirit world, and this number is hauntingly unforgettable, not least for the equally soulful and operatic singing of Melanie Marshall's Funmilayo and the amazing costumes worn by the Orishas. (Designer Marina Draghici won another of the show's Tonys; sound designer Robert Kaplowitz got another. The show was co-produced by Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.)
And for the record, she tells him, no, she had not been scared, and yes, the fight was not only worth it, but should only be intensified.
And so Kuti decides to lay her coffin at the feet of the Nigerian military at the head of an army of supporters. Along with it are laid the coffins of both the causes of and victims of dozens of other injustices: both Trayvon Martin and Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, to name one from each category.
Kuti only sharpened the weapon that was his music. "You can kill us today, but we will be here tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that," he says.
Earlier in the show, Kuti tells of how he had been baptized with a ridiculous name: Hildegard. He explained that he had to symbolically die and be reborn as Fela.
Kuti's actual death came in 1997, when he succumbed to an AIDS-related illness.
This show, and Ngaujah's portrayal of the man, have managed to make even that literal death seem as symbolic as little Hildegard's passing.
Fela is dead. Long live FELA!
FELA! was brought to Jones Hall by the Society for the Performing Arts and will be there through Sunday. Ticket prices range from $30 to $80 and may be purchased online at www.spahouston.org, by phone at 713-227-4772 or at the courtyard level ticket office at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. Hours of operation: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday. For groups of 15 or more, call 713-632-8113.
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