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Dancing with Fela! On Broadway

November 7, 2010

So one beautiful American morning in October, I went up to Union Station in Washington DC and took the train up to Penn Station New York to do some business and take in the show, Fela! On Broadway.

So one beautiful American morning in October, I went up to Union Station in Washington DC and took the train up to Penn Station New York to do some business and take in the show, Fela! On Broadway.

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I enjoyed myself. New York was on its best behavior, lots of energy on the streets, great street theater, I felt like I was on the Marina of my childhood in Lagos. I have a complicated relationship with the city of New York. I love New York but she does not always love me back. Whenever I visit New York, she always gives me a bear hug; what she does next is always predictably unpredictable. Sometimes she kisses me lustily, sometimes she bites me bloody. Ah, love is like Russian roulette. This time around, New York was all kisses, all art in motion, thanks to the brains behind Fela! On Broadway.

I won’t lie; I stepped into New York’s Eugene O’Neill theatre with a jaded attitude, a chip on my jaded shoulders. I did not see how foreigners could teach me a thing about Fela, Anikulapo Kuti, Abami Eda, the Weird One. I am happy to say I was dead wrong: At the first blast of Fela's horns, Patti LaBelle’s sheer poetry (as Fela’s mother) and the swivel-riot of the lithe waists of Fela's girls, I was overcome with love and lust. Let’s just say fun this delicious should be illegal. This was Afro beat at its best. To put it simply: Fela! On Broadway deploys historical accuracy & heavy-duty research to create a joyous riot onto the senses. This tour-de-force of great artistic talents showcases music's muscle. When Fela grabs the saxophone to paw the air, a force grabs you to dance, just dance. Life is good. Defiant to the end, these children of the privileged gallantly rise in song to salute the courage of the long-suffering people of Fela’s Nigeria. Brilliant.

I fell in love with the playfully serious casual ferocity of this show. And Fela’s girls, man, they can dance, hell, even their hair dance. They almost convinced me that they were boneless waifs. The set was a marvel, these folks did their research. I loved the simple stage set up.  The walls of the set reveled in Nigeria’s troubled history: Olusegun Obasanjo is everywhere, hunting down rioting students, Punch and Daily Times newspaper clippings Daily Times.

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Malcolm X. Nkrumah. Totems of protest everywhere. Injustice, blood, shit, sex and attitude everywhere. Guns, the police, darkness and malevolence painted everywhere. And then the triumph in song of the people’s spirit over the military’s jackboots.  And Patti LaBelle was regal as Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti, staring down terror, stern mother hen weaving in and out of the mayhem like a pretty spirit come to pour balm on hurts.

Major kudos to the visionaries behind this show – Bill T. Jones, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. I cannot express how much I enjoyed watching the lead actor Kevin Mambo. On stage, he was Fela, androgynous, preening, showing off his natty clothes and attitude clinging for dear life to his skinny muscle-bound self. Even the artists’ accents were cute, reminding me that each time Fela speaks Pidgin English, he exposes his privileged upbringing. Fela’s was the voice of privilege chronicling the savagery of state-sanctioned thugs. When the directors could not reproduce some of Fela’s more risqué antiques they improvised like brilliant imps showcasing his marijuana use and his preference for various stages of undress. 

The scriptwriters captured Fela’s brilliance perfectly. The music came in riotous bursts to fill the heart with joy and song. It was a brilliant medley of the sum of Fela's core songs, sanitized yabis but one that still brought a knowing smile to the face. Kalakuta Republic was everywhere on the set and in the hearts and souls of the artistes. I could almost see these beautiful people in molues, danfos and bolekajas speaking truth to power in lusty song – just like Fela did. I was touched by the amount of care and work that went into the research. This is an important work because it went beyond Fela and managed to capture the history of Nigeria through the eyes of Fela’s struggles. There was eclectic Sandra Isadore, Fela’s African American lover highlighting the historical love and tension between African Americans and Africans. Haunting is Nigeria’s history in the background with hopeful children waving flags in black and white.

There is a sense in which the play was really a faction based closely on the life of Fela, not everything was historically accurate, but for me that was part of the fun – the play engaged me in searching for missing pieces. Missing was Fela's signature keyboard and I would have loved the producers to showcase Fela’s legendary saxophonist Baba Ani (Fela is shown as the only one producing all those wondrous saxophone riffs). But it did not matter to me, this was a great production and I danced all night in memory of a musical genius and prophet – Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Baba lives.