'Fela!' brings African beat back to Broadway

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The word genius is thrown around way too casually. Witness parents convinced their children should sign up for Mensa once they scribble with crayons.

Every so often, however, we are in the presence of true genius. In this case Bill T. Jones, who co-wrote, directed and choreographed "Fela!" the Tony winning show that opens Thursday, (July 12), for a limited run at Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre. 

It isn't just me calling Jones a genius. The MacArthur Foundation bestowed a genius grant upon him for good reason. He's also a Kennedy Center Honoree and has two Tonys, one for choreographing "Fela!" and another for "Spring Awakening" two years earlier.

"Fela!" is a celebration of freedom, dance and music. It does what only live theater can do, which is force you to live in the moment, feel the joy and sadness that explodes on the stage and down the aisles of the theater, all to the Afrobeat, a sensuous blend of jazz and African music, which Fela created.

This is based on the true story of Fela Kuti (1938-97), a musician, player (in every sense of the word) and nightclub owner who was reared to be a leader. His mother was an amazingly powerful woman, a feminist who fought the colonists. His father was the first president of the Nigerian Teachers Union.

In this musical, Fela ( Sahr Ngaujah) narrates his story, sings, dances and plays the saxophone. The dancing is what must be seen. If you have never cared about African dance, that could be because you have never seen it.

It is a dance of impossible beauty and grace, as ballet is, but where ballet feels ethereal, coming from the air, African dance feels rooted from the Earth. The musicians, on stage the entire time, keep the show moving. The heart of the music comes from the drummers, for they give the dancers the beat from which they spring to life. The dance tells the story, but doesn't further it. 

So much dancing in Broadway musicals is based on the same routines. Don't get me wrong, jazz hands and high kicks should be used often - think about how they would pep up business meetings - but this is a different sort of dance, one of ancient spirituality and sexuality.  It's as if the drumbeat is connected to the dancers' hips and the vibrations carry through your being.

The play takes place inside The Shrine, Fela's nightclub. It's the last night at the club. Fela is torn, he wants to leave Lagos, but can't tear himself away from his country. He tells us his story, and in doing so involves the audience, commanding them to get up and move to the beat. Calling out his signature "Yea, yea!" Demanding a reply from the audience before he moves on. 

The dancers also sing. Fela tells of traveling to London to study medicine, but instead studied jazz. He spent time in the States, but the pull of Nigeria was great and he returned to his beloved country and faced the corrupt government. He was jailed, hauled into court more than 200 times and lived a life under harassment. All of this is told so brilliantly and so exhaustively that another actor, Adesola Osakalumi, plays Fela at some performances. 

Ngaujah is so completely convincing in his passion, it's hard to imagine he's not the real man. I was lucky enough to see him perform this three years ago, in its first Broadway run and now as part of a multicity tour. I've been thinking and talking about it since, and for a show and a performer to have that sort of resonance, with someone fortunate enough to have seen dozens of plays since, is special.

Early on, reflecting on how his country has changed, Fela says, "But we all know, Hotel Africa hasn't been like that since our fair-skinned, tea-drinking guests started moving in. You know how it is with new guests. At first it's quite nice having new faces around. Looking funny. Talking funnier. But then you start noticing things going missin' - ashtrays, towels, bathrobes, petroleum, diamonds, people! And what do they leave in return? Gonorrhea and Jesus."

Sometimes when you leave a show, you're humming a song. Not here, though it's jammed with songs. Rather, when you leave this, you marvel at Funmilayo's solo.

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Melanie Marshall as Fela's mother, Funmilayo, is regal, fierce and intelligent. Marshall has the sort of voice that skips over octaves and would be completely at home uptown at Lincoln Center. 

"Fela!" can feel justifiably preachy, but only at the end and even then, only briefly does it feel a little forced when dancers carry coffins with names such as "Rodney King," "Trayvon Martin" and "Sean Bell."
 
Still, that's a minor quibble compared to what "Fela!" offers, and what it offers is amazing, high-energy entertainment that is pure genius.
Photo/Video credit: Tristram Kenton
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