NEW YORK, NY—The hue of Fela! is deep black. The Eugene O’Neill Theater is festooned with African artifact, made out to be a club, The Shrine, in Lagos, Nigeria. The band, Brooklyn Afrobeat masters Antibalas, is already playing as you take your seat. The groove is delicious: Deep funk and jazzy syncopation, horns a’plenty wailing and percussion percolating bigtime—and the musical itself, based on the life of the legendary African musician/activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, hasn’t even started yet!
Fela took traditional African rhythms and infused them with James Brown riffs, Afro-Cuban mambo, John Coltrane spaciness, the sultry soul of Nina Simone and even the laid back sway of Frank Sinatra, thus inventing, in the process, what’s now known as Afrobeat. His lyrics denounced corruption, calling out his own government of Nigeria for its human-rights abuses. For this he was arrested over 200 times, and routinely beaten and tortured. In 1977, a government-sanctioned attack on his compound in Lagos resulted in it being burned to the ground, his wives raped and his 82-year-old mother thrown out of an upstairs window. Soldiers barred firefighters from attending to the blaze. Fela suffered a fractured skull and fled to Ghana where he lived in exile.
By that time, though, Fela was an international superstar with album sales in the millions worldwide. After being nursed back to health, he could have lived the life of a rock star anywhere in the world. Instead, he chose to go back to Nigeria and challenge the government again.
In telling its story, Fela! eschews linear narrative in favor of a club concert where Antibalas righteously reinvents Fela’s international hits while Sahr Ngaujah makes the larger-than-life dope-smoking provocateur come to life. The title role is so demanding that two leads—Sahr and Kevin Mambo—share the role depending upon the day of the week.
Directed by Bill T. Jones—who won a Tony Award for his Spring Awakening choreography—Fela! is an in-your-face production, filled with wild dancing that regularly spills out into the audience, powerful popping percussion that you can feel in your gut, horns that punctuate the proceedings with shrieks, gasps and the kind of over-the-top trebly sound that can only be described as fucking loud!
Then it gets really good.
The second act is positively mysterious, shocking, menacing and palpably heartbreaking. His act is disturbed by the cops. The lights go out. The silence—after all that action—is deafening. Fela is tortured. A serious gloom sets in. The severity of creativity being drowned—both figuratively and literally—is offputting. Yet it’s all done in such a way that it’s almost psychedelic.
Still, the show must go on. Fela’s mother—played by Lillias White—gets a showstopper of a dramatic ballad. Every note, every melody, every lyric, is all by Fela Kuti. And by final curtain, it turns into a celebration for a musical pioneer that the U.S. is uh, late, in catching on to.
Antibalas holds late-night court at The Knitting Factory every Thursday playing this music. There’s a three-disc Fela compilation out. Many of his 70 albums will be re-released. A Hollywood movie is in the works.
Broadway musicals mostly depend on out-of-state tourists to survive. Rapper Jay-Z and actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who financed Fela!, are banking that white grandmothers from Kansas will pay to see a bio of an African musician who died of AIDS in 1997, had 27 wives and smoked a prodigious amount of pot. Sure, it’s a gamble to think that Broadway goers, whose only taste of Africa came from The Lion King, will support such an incendiary and revolutionary production.
They should. It’s just that damn good.