When the buzz about Fela started making its rounds through the off broadway circuit the initial assumption that the play about the random African artist in NY would live and die off broadway, was put to rest.
Fast forward 10 years after the first meeting to develop the play, and the quirky little musical has morphed into a world class show leaving a stamp on history, like few musicals have been able to.
On the 20th of April FELA! the musical steamrolled its way from the famed streets of Broadway to its original roots — the chaotic Lagos streets. Arriving ominously in during a very tense, election period, amidst the post-election violence in the North of the country.
Opening with a 90 minute concert version to Fela fanatics at the New Africa Shrine, the cast described the performance as overwhelming. Years of preparation coming full circle, to play a club where devout followers of Fela flock to. "They clapped for us" said cast member Abena Koomson, " and someone said, the people at the Shrine, they don't clap for anybody!" Many from the cast avowed the honor they felt for being welcomed to Fela's homeland most of them setting foot on African soil for the first time. The full show played from the 20th to 25th of April at the Eko Hotel & Suites Expo Hall in Victoria Island.
Directed and choreographed by the legendary Bill T. Jones, Fela! recounts the story of the Fela Anikulapo Kuti, through Fela's original music and fervent dancers. The stage set to replicate the the Shrine welcomes the audience with drumming sounds of the percussion line, building up the anticipation for the appearance of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, played by rotating lead Sahr Ngaujah. Ngaujah captures the spirit of the revolutionary down to his signature grunt of “MH-Hum!” instantly engaging the crowd in call and response, and breaking the out of the conveniences of your regular broadway show. A clear difference between the audiences of New York and now Lagos was the knowledge of the subject matter, with the opening line of "Trouble Sleep" sending the crowd into an unguided "Nyanga go wake am, wetin e dey find."
The musical depicts a final Fela performance, with the legend struggling on the decision to either stay in the country or take off, frustrated by his ill-treatment from the Nigerian government. The circumstances lead him to reminisce on the events leading up to the raid on the Kalakuta Republic. From leaving Lagos to learn to play the horns in the UK, to his re-education on being "black and proud" from his African American mentor and lover, Sandra Izsadore, to the creation of his genre: Afro-beat, and ultimately his mother's death in the raid and burning down of the Kalakuta Republic, with the occasional interruption of his late mother's voice in guiding his decision.
Pre-viewing, criticism floated with skeptics questioning the authenticity of the play with only one Nigerian cast member. However, murmurs where quickly silenced upon the first viewing of the show, and word spread on the urgency in which Nigerians who could, needed to experience the play.
The igbo-smoking, antigovernment militant, and polygamist, who blew a mean horn was revived, for Nigerians to understand the man behind the vilified anti-hero. His story being told for the first time on a mainstream platform to those who secretly frequented the Shrine and their kids experiencing a "live Fela" for the first time.
"What's really interesting is that we just assumed that everybody in Nigeria would know about Fela. Young people today don't really know his story, they know 5 of the songs, or they know the music, but there's really no where to learn this stuff, no one's reading books about him, no TV show has been made about him, and no movie has been made about him," said the writer of the musical Jim Lewis.
The play found a renewed context, arriving in Lagos at this specific period. With the end for what some have called the freest and fairest elections Nigeria has seen since 1993, despite instances of rigging, underage voting, intimidation, and the riots currently taking place in the North. The lyrics of Fela's music are more relevant than ever. Jim Lewis spoke on the issues the cast had in rehearsals being dependent on the availability of power. "You realize its a real huge issue that is really hurting this country, where basically the people of this country cannot depend on the fact that they are going to have energy to run on" said Lewis. He also pointed to the deplorable education system that still affects Nigeria today, that Fela spoke about in songs like "Teacher, No Teach Me Nonsense." "He was prophetic," said Ngaujah "and now people have the chance to appreciate this guy who tried to express these ideas through music, which was his weapon, and it is still a very powerful weapon."
There was something to be said in the writers of the show keeping true to their original version by calling out then military leaders responsible for the prosecution of Fela, who ironically are still key players in Nigerian politics. One particular scene saw dancers holding placards with names of individuals and companies said to be responsible for the state of Nigerian affairs, including General Buhari (who just lost the recent presidential election), former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who at the time was the head of state, and was held responsible for ordering 1,000 troops to raid of Kalakuta, leading to the death of Fela's Mother, after she was thrown from a second story window by soldiers, eventually dying from the incurred injuries. "Some people were concerned about calling them out in the middle of the election, and we decided that we should call them out because that's what Fela was about so we should do it," said Lewis. The scene also threw blows at more global forces such as Royal Dutch Shell (who continue to drill in the Niger Delta today), Haliburton, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund.
The show closed out with "Coffin for the Head of State", a powerful scene which depicts Fela's audacity in taking his mother's coffin to Dodan Barracks, which served as the residence for Obasanjo. The ability of the play to be shown uncensored in an accessible venue such as Eko Hotel, could be an indication of imminent change in Nigeria's direction. The play offered a re-education of the Nigerian people on an unsung hero, a man who despite torture, and intimidation stood his ground and made his opinion loud and clear about corruption within the Nigerian system. One can only hope the spirit of the musical stays with the people, and that Nigerians do not revert to "Shuffering and Shmiling". "Well the thing for young people is to have the courage to face their fears and listen to their hearts, " said Sahr Ngaujah "you'll find that courage for the journey, and God knows we need it right now."