FELA! the musical brings a taste of Lagos to Chicago

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Julia Jacobs, asst. web editor

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‘FELA!’ does not begin with the curtains whooshing apart or a spotlight appearing with traditional musical bravado.  It is an unorthodox production, daring to capture the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti: political renegade, musical pioneer, and to some, spiritual visionary.

The musicians in Fela’s band ‘Antibalas’ amble on stage two or three minutes before show-time, situating themselves within the Fela’s ‘Afrika Shrine’. The stage is dressed like the iconic nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria: shabby yet vibrant, with portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. hanging on the walls.

From the audience chatter, Fela’s original Afrobeat funk begins to emerge. When all conversation is hushed, the dancers strut lightly from behind the audience and take their place on stage.  It is the only quiet moment, the natural buildup to a show with the pace of a long sprint… each number a burst of expression through the cast’s bodies, voices, and spirits.  Fela, played by Sahr Ngaujah enters with fists raised above his head, arms bent at the elbows in Fela’s trademark stance.

In one sense FELA! is a rock opera: the cast performs Fela’s Afrobeat music with his original intention and flavor.  Truly, if jazz funk and traditional Yoruba music had a baby, it would be named Afrobeat.  Fela’s lyrics are projected artfully at the top of the screen so the audience can understand his philosophies through the medium with which he intended- his music.

Some describe FELA! as a ‘dancical’: the show is alive with freeform gyrations of the ensemble mixed with Bill T. Jones’ visually stimulating choreography.  The show is rich with modern, jazz, African tribal and most often a freeform hybrid of the three.  Scattered around the space, each person dances alone; but simultaneously they dance as one cohesive unit, moving to the same bass line (according to Fela, if you remove the bass, you remove the funk).

In another sense entirely FELA! is nothing but a biography about a man whose life was a constant stream of energy, devoted to curing rampant injustice in Nigeria through his music and wisdom.

Standing at the edge of the stage, arms open in a gesture of welcome, chest already slick with sweat, Ngaujah cries, “Can I get a yeah-yeah?”  Initially it may be hard to detach oneself from the obvious: this is not the ‘Afrika Shrine’, the most dangerous, crime-ridden pocket of Lagos, Nigeria.  In fact most audience members do not have a drop of African blood in their bodies.

When the only response is a subdued, mumbled, ‘yeah-yeah’ the actors turn to each other in disgust, as if to ask why they are wasting their time with an audience with such low spirits.  Soon enough Ngaujah commands everyone to their feet and begins a Yoruba-inspired call and response chant as well as an elementary lesson on African hip gyration.

 It is nothing less than a stroke of brilliance that ignites a spark in the audience and a fire of investment in whatever else Fela’s story has to offer.  This connection is not one that seems manufactured or ‘Broadway-ified’ for the purpose of producing a smash hit and raking in millions.  The connection was established by Fela and resurrected by Broadway.  This connection exists from the involuntary tapping of the toes and nodding of the head, to the woman in Row L who felt the need to yell aloud in response to every world Ngaujah spoke.

Despite Ngaujah’s sparklingly precise portrayal of Fela (with a pinch of originality thrown in so it did not seem like an impersonation), to say this was a one man show would be to disrespect the rest of the cast members, each of which drew my eye and tugged on my heartstrings from beginning to end.

Leading lady Melanie Marshall who plays Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Fela’s mother, represents the feminine lifeblood at the times the Fela’s masculinity overpowers the show.  Though Fela loves his wives and his dancers, and treats them as his Queens, he is domineering and seeks control over them. Funmilayo was not only loved by Fela, but respected, even worshipped for her wisdom.

Funmilayo was a women’s rights activist, teacher, and political leader in Nigeria into her old age.  She was beloved by her son as ‘the spirit of rain’ and served as his voice of reason when his world grew dark with the threats of the corrupt Nigerian government.  Her voice expanded through the theater with an unmatched strength, overpowering all other senses and leaving the audience trembling.

On Feb. 18, 1977 at twelve o’clock noon, 77 year-old Funmilayo was thrown from a second story window from Fela’s home of Kalakuta, ending her life. 1,000 soldiers had surrounded the compound: sexually abusing the Queens and setting the generator in flames. Fela, ‘the one who holds death in his pouch’ was badly beaten and arrested.

This tragedy is the show’s climax and is portrayed solemnly, albeit theatrically. The show is catapulted into Fela’s nightmarish hallucination, capturing a mind raw with the shock of his beloved mother’s death. The chaos that ensues is rooted in Yoruba tribal dance, and may shock the audience just as much as the lesson in Nigerian hip gyrations did.  It is wild and unfamiliar, yet it fits undeniably well.  Once all has been brought to Earth, we meet a newly orphaned Fela with a revelation in his search for social justice.

“Whose coffin are you willing to carry?” Ngaujah asks us.

This resonating line comes to life when four of Fela’s followers enter carrying Funmilayo’s coffin, the barebones wood looking odd in the vibrant surroundings.  Just like the beginning, heads turn to the back of the theatre as the Queens enter, astoundingly graceful and regal.  This time each cast member carries a miniature coffin painted with the name of an injustice on African soil.

This simple scene proves the brilliance of using history as the basis for a production as well as the beauty of using a production to tell history. FELA! tells the story of a man who’s convictions were oftentimes too impassioned to be put simply in words.  Through a radiant array of song and dance, the show artfully takes its audience on a journey to a repressed place in history, giving Chicago a much-needed taste of Lagos spirit.

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