Fela – Theater Review
Fela! explores Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s controversial life as an artist, political activist and revolutionary musician as well as his pioneering blend of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms that launched the Afrobeat community.
Fela is a very interesting theater piece in that it tries to do three things, one of which it does incredibly successfully, which is presenting African dance, music, and costuming to an extraordinarily joyful, exuberant extent led by the talented and energetic Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela Anikulapo-kuti. The production is long at two and a half hours and apparently reduced from three when it was off Broadway. As I said, the African dance and music and costuming are fabulous. Incredibly talented people, fabulous bodies and to the extent the audience actually gets up and dances with — the entire audience, not just those who wander up the aisle, but everybody gets up and dances. So for the first half hour you’re thinking this is the best thing I’ve ever seen, I want to stay here forever. However, then two other things, which don’t work nearly as successfully occur: the biography of Fela, who was an actual person, whom most Americans, certainly including me, knew nothing about. And the third aspect is to the political situation in Lagos, Nigeria. The problem about the last two is that we really don’t learn much about Fela except he had a grandfather who went to England and sang African songs and a mother who was murdered. And if the point is to know who this pop star was in Africa, we don’t really know anything about him. And to somehow combine fabulous dancing with a lot of pelvic movement, with water torture in Nigeria, doesn’t work at all. And if this is to be a political musical, and there have been very successful ones, certainly Kiss of the Spider Woman was a very successful political musical about torture, about some of the same kinds of things. But to just kind of cram it in there doesn’t make any sense. There have been incredibly effective musicals about obscure musicians that no one really knew very much about, but you learned a lot about them. But to try and join the three of them together is very long and not very profitable. However, having said that, this is a great theatrical experience for the exuberance, for the dancing, for the music, for the costumes, and for the talent. I just wish that I could have given it a full five star review, but because of the uneasy juxtaposition, I think I’m going to have to settle for three stars.