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.
Jones opens the show by walking the audience through Fela’s creation of Afrobeat music and culture. We learn about his youth in Nigeria’s “high life” clubs; his jazz and funk immersions while studying in London; his politicization among the black power movement while in America. A creative set design incorporates video, archival images and even occasional supra text, which helps untrained ears suss out the radical lyrics in all of Fela’s music.
Having established the what of Afrobeat, the show moves into the why, depicting the Nigerian authorities’ deadly effort to snuff out Fela’s cultural movement. A gripping number brings the audience into the bloody 1977 evening in which police stormed Fela’s compound, burned it down, raped his dancers and murdered his equally radical mother. The show tackles lots of that sort of dense content, but Antibalas’ driving rhythms keep things moving and somehow digestible.
The show’s relentless energy is in fact so demanding that two actors—Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo—split the lead in rotating shifts. Ngaujah, who began the role in the show’s off-Broadway run, goes five days a week; Mambo picks up three days. Fela is onstage for all but two minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour production. It’d be a one-man show, if not for the dozen or so dancers and musicians swirling around him at all times. And that dynamic—a singular personality within a constantly moving mass—is definitive of Fela’s music and movement as well.
But if Jones boldly presents Fela the legend, he plainly avoids Fela the man. (The book is written by Jones and Jim Lewis.) One can understand why: Fela was a mess of a man. Ironically, he parroted in his private life much of the Big Man syndrome that underpins the political corruption he so bravely challenged. He married his dancers—27 at one time in a mass wedding—and was, by all accounts, a pig about gender, asserting that the true African woman should be submissive. And it’s hard to ignore a willful, self-destructive streak that may have driven his clashes with government as much as politics did. Fela! nods at these things, but doesn’t probe. “I probably wouldn’t get along with him,” Jones told the New York Times.
It’s a shame. Jones’ reservations notwithstanding, his talents seem ideally suited to mining the explosive mix of race, sexuality and gender that helped shape such a complicated figure. But that may have been too much for a Broadway musical. As is, the show delightfully bends and tweaks the genre beyond recognition—as Fela’s signature phrase puts it, “Original, no artificiality.” On that much at least, Jones and Fela would have surely connected.
Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.