No big name headliners, but the Broadway musical Fela has made its presence known on Broadway. It’s a musical about Nigeria’s most famous musician Fela Kuti. The musical is proving to be a surprising hit on Broadway, despite the lack of big stars or hit songs.
During the course of a free-flowing two hour and 20 minutes, the audience is treated to an innovative mix of biography, music and dance.
An audience of primarily Africans and African-Americans laugh and smile at the scenes.
The stage, set up as an approximation of the Shrine, his Lagos nightclub and community centre, is where Fela – who is played by two actors,
narrates his journeys to far-away lands both geographical and spiritual. Fela’s journey to the spiritual world was warmly received for Kunle Ade,
a Nigerian musician and fashion-designer based in New York’s hip Fort Greene neighborhood.
“When Fela chants, it is really spiritual and deep. The producers knew what they were doing, and respected the material enough to
guide it a certain way,” he says.
In one memorable number, the audience is treated to an interactive lesson into the mechanics of “breaking it down.”
For those not familiar with performing concentrated pelvic movements, Fela explains that it is not more complicated than
trying to feel the beat.
The original Shrine was closed soon after his death in 1997, but the play’s director and choreographer, the renowned Bill T Jones,
does an extraordinary job of crafting an immersive experience. As the performers by turns sit, interact and walk about the stage
before the performance and during its intermission, one imagines that is exactly what the shrine was like in its heyday: a place to
hang out and share ideas.
Wahala Temi, a female visual artist based in the New York borough of Staten Island, said Fela’s gender consciousness was well-represented.
As the play narrates, Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, played a significant role in his life. She died at the hands of the country’s military government.
“Fela was a feminist, she said. “His mother was a freedom fighter, and his intention was to keep his wives safe.”
His wives, or “queens”, as he refers to them, are depicted as regal, dignified companions. Others, however, have criticized the play for this.
Fela in fact married 27 women in 1978 before he adopted a rotating system of 12 wives. In the play, he is able to explain his life choices,
but the women are silent.
Some critics say the play glossed over his copious drug use, negative view on the use of condoms and belief that Aids is a “white man’s disease.”
Unfortunately in 1997 Fela died of Aids.
Yet since the musical began its run on Broadway last November, the show has thrived.
Sources: BBC News, Focus on Africa