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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Theater review: 'Fela!' is ferocious, exuberant, but also a little irresponsible

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 11:58 AM

Here's what you should not look for if you go see the Broadway smash Fela! at Belk Theater tonight: a linear narrative; songs performed in their entirety; context for some of the thornier details of the life of Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Here's what you can expect: ferocious, exuberant, awe-inspiring music and dance; lots of shimmering washboard abs and bouncing booties; a whirlwind of pop-cultural references ranging from Frank Sinatra to John Coltrane to James Brown to Bob Marley to Stokely Carmichael; feel-good displays of revolutionary righteousness. And did I mention ferocious, exuberant, awe-inspiring music and dance?

Adesola Osakalumi
  • Sharen Bradford
  • Adesola Osakalumi

The big stars of the production, which opened Monday and returns to the Belk tonight for a second performance, are Adesola Osakalumi, who plays Fela with dazzling energy and charisma, and Melanie Marshall, whose rich, angelic voice as Fela's mother steals several scenes. The unsung stars are the musicians of the traveling Fela Band, whose original leader, Aaron Johnson of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, arranged Fela's songs for the stage, turning his extended funk and jazz improvs into digestible nuggets that somehow retain the spirit of the original music. The weakest link in the touring line-up is new member Michelle Williams, the former Destiny's Child singer. She landed the role of Fela's African-American lover Sandra Isadore, who was responsible for introducing the late singer and activist to '60s and '70s American black power figures from Malcolm X to Angela Davis. Williams has neither the dance moves, the acting chops nor the voice - her Minnie Mouse vocals aren't at all believable when she's lecturing Fela on tough, American-style political activism - to pull off such an important role.

The setting for the musical is Fela's final show at the Afrika Shrine, a nightclub located at his Kalakuta Republic commune outside Lagos, Nigeria. Throughout the 1970s, the Nigerian military had regularly harassed Fela for his outspokeness about the country's political corruption. Then, in 1977, after the singer released his classic album Zombie - which characterized Nigeria's military troops as brain-dead puppets of the country's dictator-like general Olusegun Obasanjo - soldiers raided Fela's commune, raped many of its occupants and threw the singer's mother, the famed Nigerian feminist and political activist Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, out of a second-story window, causing injuries that would lead to her death two months later.

All of that and more is told in the musical by way of whiplash monologues that switch back and forth in time so quickly it's hard to figure out when the appearances by Fela's mother are apparitions and when they are real. Not that it matters too much. The cast and musicians had the audience packed into Belk Theater Monday night on its feet and dancing. And that's the way it should be. This is musical theater, after all; if you want to learn about the real Fela, it's best to enjoy the play for what it is and then for more depth and context go back to Fela's massive discography, authoritative books like Michael Veal's Fela: The Life of an African Musical Icon, and the documentary Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon. Still, I couldn't help but feel a little intellectually short-changed as I left the theater.

Don't get me wrong: Fela!, the Broadway musical, is an enjoyable production. It's a good thing that mainstream American audiences are finally hearing about the music legend, learning a little about his political awakening and dangerous confrontations with Nigerian authorities, about Yoruba folk traditions and about how the singer and saxophonist mixed American jazz and funk with the West African musical style highlife to create Afrobeat. But what's missing from this production is some really, really important stuff: while the play emphasizes the political oppression Fela fought, it glosses over or makes light of his dark sides (for example, he was a raging misogynist - ironic, given his mother's feminism - who believed women are inferior to men) and it never once mentions that the singer died in 1997, at age 58, as a result of AIDS-related complications. To his final days, Fela denied HIV/AIDS, opposed contraception as "un-African," and went on to father at least three more children after becoming infected with the virus.

To me, the omission of Fela having AIDS, in particular, is a glaring problem that extends beyond oversight into irresponsibility. During the performance of the song "Whose Coffin Will You Carry," toward the end of the play, the writers and producers (including Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) thrust a laundry list of important topics into the audience's consciousness - coffins scrawled with the names of exploiters, from "Buhari" and "Shagari" (two Nigerian leaders and Fela foes) to "Halliburton," "AIG" and "The World Bank," were stacked up on stage for dramatic effect. And yet there was not one mention of AIDS, the real killer of Fela that has been one of Africa's most destructive enemies, snuffing out more people than any military dictator or rogue capitalist.

To tell Fela's story on stage without mentioning the pesky bad stuff belies the very first performance we see as the show opens: Fela, standing powerfully at center stage, giving a lecture about authenticity and rousing the audience into a sing-along to the lyrics, "Original - No Artificiality!"

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