FELA! at Jones Hall: An Immortal Feast
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.
Tristram Kenton Kuti's (Sahr Ngaujah) head is turned around by American Black Panther Sandra Smith (Paulette Ivory).
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.