Presenting Fela!

Bill T. Jones’ Broadway production is a full-bodied, sensory experience for theatergoers. He puts Fela the legend center stage, but Fela the man stays out of the limelight.

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Fela! on Broadway

Bill T. Jones’ debut as a Broadway director, with his remarkable new musical, Fela!, is best described by one moment in his staging of Fela Kuti’s smash-hit song “Zombie.” Fela, played by Sahr Ngaujah, stands at one end of the stage—shirtless, sweaty, clad only in tight, pink pants—and hunkers down on a fire-engine-red saxophone trimmed with cowrie shells. He points his sax at two dancers representing Nigerian military police and cranks out a wall of sound that sends their bodies flailing, stunned and overcome. For two acts, Jones’ audience gets much of the same treatment.

Jones’ exploration of Fela’s legendary life fits awkwardly onto the stage. It’s neither standard Broadway nor truly a musical because there’s not much in the way of narrative. It’s far more than a concert, though it could certainly pass for one. And though Jones’ bold choreography shapes it, it’s not dance, either. More than anything else, what Jones has put together is a full-bodied, sensory experience for theatergoers. Which is probably the most fitting way to introduce many Americans to the force that was Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Jones is no more willing to be trapped by the stage itself than he is the genre’s conventions. The band—Brooklyn’s awesome Afrobeat collective Antibalas—starts jamming before the show even starts. Fela makes his entrance through the orchestra seats—arms thrust high in his iconic pose, a cigarette in one fist and a mic in the other, surrounded by a bobbing, too-cool-for-school entourage. The show’s constant motion regularly flows back into the audience’s space, with dancers streaking and tumbling down the aisles. There’s even a dance floor in the balcony. We are not asked to passively consume this show. It’s our experience; Jones’ players are merely our guides.

The production recreates a night with Fela and his crew at the Shrine, the infamous Lagos, Nigeria nightclub he created. Back in the day, the Shrine’s purpose was always twofold: to host raucous, hedonistic parties and to facilitate a bold, populist defiance of Nigeria’s dictatorship.

The two aims were inseparable and Fela! blends them artfully as well. The audience gets a group dance lesson in the “clock”—banging out ass bumps for each hour on the dial—alongside Fela’s insightful, if sardonic, musings on the colonialism, corruption and state brutality that have strangled Africa. If you learn nothing else, you walk away understanding that the man’s revolution was a hell of a party, too.

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