All photos by Monique Carboni.
If you’re in NY or are coming here at all for the holidays, definitely do not miss FELA! It’s honestly one of the best musicals — if not the best — I’ve ever seen (and I don’t often like musicals!)
It’s a very “real” musical in that it takes place in a night-club in Lagos, Nigeria — called The Shrine — founded by real-life Nigerian composer, musician, founder of Afrobeat, and human rights activist Fela Kuti (1938-1997). It’s the late 1970s and he and his dancers (mostly female) perform their unique — and fascinating — blend of what seems to me traditional African, Reggae, and funk, and you’re part of the night-club audience!
Through the songs — most of them are actual music by Kuti — Kuti tells his story, and that of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who was killed by the police just months earlier, when they raided Kuti’s compound. Funmilayo was a feminist and human rights activist who was vocal in her opposition to colonialism, and to the corrupt government, and her death, along with the attack on Kuti’s compound, were politically-motivated.
It’s hard to understand the exact political problems in Kuti’s Nigeria — I’d think it would be near impossible to explain something that complicated in a show like this — but suffice it to say the government is corrupt, there’s no accountability of government officials, the police force / Army is murderous, Nigerian citizens are suffering, and Kuti is speaking out against it all through his songs.
The story-line moves back and forth in time, much of it devoted to Kuti’s memory of Funmilayo, played brilliantly by Lillias White (in photo above).
The show is expertly choreographed and directed by Bill T. Jones (photo above by Joseph Moran), who, I feel, does his best work on Broadway. The dancing is so incredibly stunning. I have never seen African dance done this well. Jones must have looked long and hard for those miraculous performers! The play obviously provides a great history lesson, but, seriously, you can go for the dancing alone and be completely blown away.
But, as I said, you’re made to feel you’re part of the Shrine audience — and Kuti (played, on my night, excellently by Sahr Ngaujah — Kevin Mambo alternates with him in the role) will ask everyone to stand up and clap, dance (at your seat!), sing, repeat words after him — it’s a lot of fun. At one point, they re-enact the police breaking into the compound, kidnapping several of the dancers, torturing them, beating Kuti, and throwing Funmilayo out of a top-floor window, killing her. But when the police storm the place, the dancers and cast -members run about the theater, through the aisles, you hear screams, shots. You feel like you’re one of them, and it’s really actually quite frightening for a split second. I actually wished they’ve have done a bit more of that — had not just the compound’s inhabitants running around screaming, but the police chasing them, waving batons, threatening everyone, including you, the “foreigner.” (My friend who I saw the show with, a black man, thought I was a bit off my nut wanting this — this rather authentic re-enaction of police brutality…)
Anyway, brilliant brilliant show — a definite must-see! I also loved Saycon Sengbloh as a female friend, whom Kuti meets during his travels. She mainly sings, and, like White, she’s got a really beautiful, powerful voice.
One last thing: at the end, the dancers and singers all emerge from the wings and carry through the aisles and out onto the stage small tombstones. It’s really cool — there are cameras all about filming live and the scene is supposed to be a political demonstration. Because of the cameras, even though the audience is all seated, everyone still kind of looks like they’re part of the demonstration. Very cool effect. Anyway, Kuti carries a tombstone bearing his mother’s name; the others’ bear words like peace, dignity, etc. At the end, they stack all tombstones atop one another onto a pile in the middle. I noticed as we were putting on our coats to leave that the one in the middle said “I am Sean Bell.” I thought that was interesting because obviously Sean Bell is a contemporary American reference and this took place in Nigeria decades ago. And, the Nigerian police stormed Kuti’s compound and attacked him and his followers for their outspoken political beliefs, whereas Bell was shot and killed by police during a failed prostitution bust because they thought — notoriously wrongly of course — that his friend was reaching toward his waistband to retrieve a gun. One outlash of violence seems so much more politically-motivated than the other. But then maybe the Bell case is political just in the fact that the police had targeted a club in a black part of town in the first place and were looking for criminal activity. Maybe both the Kuti and Bell communities were equally “under siege” in a way. I don’t know … racism in the U.S. these days takes such complicated forms because there are just layers upon layers upon layers of historical oppression.