“This Neighborhood is Too Dangerous”: Fela Kuti on Broadway By: Brian Boyles
What is the relationship between the scorched drawers of a Nigerian bourgeois teenager and a hot Broadway musical dedicated to a Nigerian revolutionary musician? How did America evolve to a point where we cower at the potential of the former while warmly embracing the latter? Are we really simultaneously safer and more in danger than ever?
In the many hours I’ve spent listening to his records, the prospect of a Fela Kuti musical never crossed my mind. After witnessing the Magic of Broadway’s ability to transform his epic life into the smash hit Fela!, I’m confident that a Umar Farouk song-and-dance extravaganza is completely possible. Say what you will about this recession-strapped, Wall Street patsy of a nation’s prospects of survival, but please: spare me any doubts about American entertainment’s enduring power to package and sanitize. Even Fela Kuti can fit on the shelf next to Billy Joel in the aisle of the successfully marketed.
Two days before New Year’s Eve, and just four days after Farouk tried to destroy Detroit’s Christmas, the wife and I accompanied Steve Cannon to a sold-out performance of the smash hit musical Fela! A large crowd gathered before showtime on the clammy sidewalks outside the Eugene O’Neil Theater, a decidedly safe locale for all but the blind raconteur, who must climb three sets of stairs to the cheap seats and descend four to reach the basement at intermission. As the wife noted, O’Neil was a lifelong alkie who might’ve had a hard time navigating these ascents even with 2 good eyes. Eugene O’Neil Theater—get your exclusive house in order! We might’ve been killed!
Tonight the house is decorated to resemble the legendary shrine/nightclub in Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic, a self-declared nation within the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Strings of white Xmas lights hang between the grand chandeliers; Afro-centric portraits of MLK, Malcolm, and Fela’s mother adorn the walls above the balcony seats, along with an odd painting of a purple elephant wielding a pistol, and a few stray disco balls. Onstage, the backdrop mimics the corrugated metal that is ubiquitous in the Third World, translucent and lit from behind and covered with rude sketches of geometric figures. A catwalk runs above the stage, and the band’s instruments wait underneath on a riser. Strung up along the wall behind us (we are in the last row) are the flags of the African nations. Cannon and I sit between Botswana and Madagascar. Projections of newspaper clippings shine in different spots around the theater, with headlines like “Let Army Oversee Presidential Election” and “Man Punished for Making Noise.”
The piped in music gives way to the live band, the musicians of Antibalas drifting into place as dancers emerge onstage from the audience and wings. The band sounds great, and the three of us stir and admire the acoustics and the prospect of 2 hours of high-quality Afrobeat, music you can’t help but move to. Cannon wants to know what the band looks like, and I say fairly young. What about the crowd? Eh, a bit hip, probably a bit more diverse than your average Broadway show, but well-coiffed, stylish, consistent with $55 -$110 price for tix. Tonight is a sell-out. More dancers appear onstage and then the lights dim and the band really hits it. Up in the top row, we’re feeling it.
Kevin Mambo plays Fela tonight. He appears center stage like a lead singer, and explains that this is the last night of the Shrine, that he is considering abandoning Nigeria altogether. Worsening neighborhood, attacks from the government, simply too dangerous. But for tonight, “Africans and non-Africans,” he will B.I.D.—Break It Down. The story of Fela, the history of the nation, the reasons why it might all end after this--he is gonna break it down for us. Which he does. Through a running monologue and a medley of songs, along with his wives/dancers and the excellent musicians, Mambo as Fela explains his education at home and abroad; his relationship with an African-American female; the way High-Life and James Brown and Frank Sinatra and Black Power begat Afrobeat; the story of his mother, a key leader in the struggle for liberation from the British; his own political aspirations (Black President) and his imprisonment; his belief in reefer; the murder of his mother, resulting in his awakening to the Yoruba religion and the consequent decision not to abandon his homeland. Mambo’s posture and mannerisms are perfect and he moves the crowd with call-and-response and a catlike confidence that honor his subject. The performance is, as the quoted reviews rave, “a tour-de-force.”
But how did it make you feeeeeel? Cannon might ask. At points, I felt enthusiastic, other times impatient. The music emboldens you, makes you jut out your jaw. I knew the story more or less, so I paid attention to the audience’s collective posture (fairly stoic, might’ve been any show, methinks, except for the part where we were asked to stand up). And on more than a few occasions, the whole thing made me cock up one side of my mouth in a not-so-sure/wince/scam-protection wariness. I’ll try to B.I.D., this reaction that was not finalized simply in the cab ride home and remains ambivalent at present.
Admission: this was my first Broadway musical. I’ve been to enough plays in that neighborhood and once saw a touring production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat…make of this what you will. The music was great, the dance was very high-quality, and the staging was adequate if a little hard to buy into (sorry, we’re in a Broadway theater, the opposite of a joint in Lagos, I suspend nothing). Yet it really was an amplified one man show, most of it with very little in the dance or staging to reflect the actions described. For instance, why did the oppressor never appear? Even in the semi-climactic storming of the Shrine by the military, we only see frantic dancers followed by projected mug shots of the band members and wives, with descriptions of their injuries. We know the British were defeated and that the post-colonial black government was a vicious, corrupt enemy of Fela, but we never see an embodiment of either. This felt like a lost opportunity to me. Too much of the show centers on explanation rather than demonstration, the telling of Fela’s story by the character Fela, rather than a full dramatic rendering of his life.
A creation of Bill T. Jones, the show featured forceful, bold dancers and the African movements and sounds were welcome in the halls of big budget showbiz. Yet because the dance was tied more to the music than the storyline, it became repetitive. And this repetition reflects a flaw in the endeavor of musical-izing Fela Kuti.
The brilliance of Fela’s music is its meditative, muscular persistence and, yes, repetition. Most anyone who’s heard it will mention the length of the songs, as that is a fundamental and necessary quality. The drums and horns begin to build, the keyboard drops in, the chants swell, the dancers are steely seductive, and then the leader steps to the front of the march and, uh, B.I.D.’s. After an angry sermon, Fela orders his band to chant, say, the name of the I.T.T. corporation for 15 minutes, so that you will not forget the villain’s name. Jagged saxophone solos give you time to consider the evil described. The subjects and hypnotic sound demand long listening, attention span, the spiritual allowance for deep impact on your political mind. The music of Fela Kuti is a complicated harmonizing of political and musical Pan-African elements, with all the surly pride of a disaffected youth beating his chest atop a garbage pile and all the intricate beats and weirdness of the greatest Parliament records. This is not to say that experiencing his music means long hours of study and familiarization with post-colonial theory; rather that the music leads to a trance that deserves time and surrender and, whenever possible, body movement.
From what I can gather, musicals require catchy numbers, memorable showcases for the stars and chorus to fill the stage with operatic grandeur, brightness and emotions, punctuated by whirling dancers and followed by explosions of light and applause. As much ground as Fela! covers, the show ends up forcing snippets of masterpieces upon a format made for jokes, brassy broads, and cute 2:00 pop numbers or ballads. However heavy the subject matter is here, the audience still gets the Magic of Broadway, where everything floats, glows, transcends to engage the imagination and please young and old. Moving staircases, shimmering transparent curtains covered by laser projections of crocodiles, and a long sequence under black lights felt like hammy simulations for a genius that defies this safe neighborhood, whatever its intentions. The stardust of Broadway falls too lightly on subjects like militias and Shell Oil, and for some reason fails to mention AIDS, the scourge that killed Fela and continues to plague his continent. In the haste to make sure we get to a grand finale, the show relieves itself of the true weight and magnitude of the great man, whose art and life defy the saleable narrative arc.
Finally, the whole thing must have cost and earned a fortune already. I can’t help it: I find this wasteful. The bar in the theater offered specialty $10 drinks like “Kuti Kula,” “The Black President,” and “The Zombie.” Think about that. Then consider the money or holographic seal of approvals handed out by the rap and film star producers, and how, if they really want to support the memory of the Shrine, they might consider building a few in the cities of our country or Fela’s to support the marginalized youth who could never afford these tickets but who remain the source for new music. Consider how that impact might counteract the mullahs. We might applaud an African story being told on Broadway, but surely we don’t think that fur-coat recognition translates to real help for the child in today’s Lagos. The divide between our well-intentioned gluttony and that child’s daily life renders the safety of 49th street fairly moot.
Still, the show is a safe bet for the investor. Is it cause or coincidence, the appearance in 2009 on the Great White Way of the man known as the Black President? Surely no one on the marketing side could complain if one were to point to Fela (the man) as a portent of Obama. Before FELA! hit the big time, someone had to put two and two together, i.e., “Well, now, look at that: a heroic musician known as the Black President brought back to life in the time of the real deal Black President! Ah-ha! Cha-ching!” Yes, money would agree that the political reality boosted earning potential of this production and likely factored in the elevation to the Eugene O’Neill Theater. How strange this America is: an African-American president contributes indirectly to the sanitized spotlighting of an African legend. How wily our merchants are! How resilient and crafty, this late capitalism!
In the cab ride home, Cannon gave it two thumbs up and we all three agreed we liked it, but…. Because for 2 hours we got to listen to Fela, as if we were at a sort of tribute show, and I’d do that any evening, though I couldn’t it afford it at these prices. As a concert, it worked. As a piece of theatrical art, I thought it was a bit narrow, basically a slight dramatization of Music is a Weapon, the French documentary filmed in 1982 and now available on DVD. And as a Broadway show, my first, I thought Fela was an ill-fit. His story is epic, and his greatness overflows comparisons, but he never wrote showtunes. The ability of Broadway to overcome these limitations, to sell this man’s work in the package of a musical--that is a clipping from the zeitgeist. As minor explosions fringe our cranky implosion, we can be confident that entertainment will go on undeterred, ever distracted, and highly expensive.