Watching FELA, the new musical directed and choreographed by Tony award winner, Bill T. Jones and presented by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith, feels like you are a part of something radically and refreshingly new and different for musical theater. The show which officially opens November 23rd, centers around the late legendary African international musician and political activisit, Fela Kuti and is told through the eyes of the character Fela played by Sahr Ngaujah.
From the moment you enter the theater you immediately wonder if you’ve wandered into a big band night club the way they used to design nightlife instead of the Eugene O’Neil Theatre. Big Band Live Jazz envelopes the lobby and inside the theater as the orchestra is already assembled on stage setting the mood for the evening. Political posters, African masks of past spiritual leaders, stringed lights, and various multimedia cover the walls of the theater as dancers dressed in late 70’s funk-inspired outfits and African garb are warming up and playing to the audience.
The setting is Nigeria, Africa in the late 70’s, specifically the Shrine night club that Fela himself opened as an insular oasis to play his innovative brand of Afro Beat music and profess his political viewpoints while often mocking the military officers directly outside the club. It was no secret that the Nigerian government did not approve of Fela Kuti developing his own political party and followers that encouraged youth to challenge the existing regime.
Throughout the entire production the cast and namely Sahr, continuously engage the audience making them feel that they are apart of the Shrine as one of the lucky guests who made it inside. At one point Fela encourages everyone to stand up and sway their hips to the Afro Beats in unison alongside the empowered female dancers who demonstrate. Sahr brings to life a portrait of a man (Fela Kuti) that through music was able to travel the globe and learn about the Black Panther movement that was happening in the U.S. as well as a political activist that wanted to re-define African pride for his home country. His leadership demonstrated as a bandleader and love for his country led to a desire to want to run for office as a future Nigerian President however, he was never able to reach this fete and even fell victim to the horrible Nigerian army who burned down his house ultimately killing his mother. Ultimately, Kuti has the last word which is vividly portrayed in the musical number, “B.Y.O.C ( Bring Your Own Coffin) where Fela and supporters march to the capital and lay his mother’s coffin at the foot of the stairs as a statement that the human spirit reigns supreme and can’t be broken.
Throughout the entire musical, the audience is made aware of Fela’s deep connection to his spiritual ancestors often using Igbo (similar to marijuana) to contact his ancestors namely his mother shown in the trippy Act 1 segment, “Underground Spiritual Game (The Clock) featuring the song, “Originality/Yellow Fever” as well in the segment, “Trouble” featuring the songs “Trouble Sleep” and “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense”. The latter two feature the haunting character of Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Anikulap-Kuti played by Tony Award winner and vocally blessed, Lillias White.
FELA, the musicial should have no problem maintaining an audience simply based on word of mouth. Upon leaving the theater the audience is aware that this is no ordinary show. Many may have known very little about Fela Kuti prior to the show however, they leave with a strong sense of the legacy that was Mr. Kuti as well as the relevance and parallels to our own political climate. Mr. Jones has succeeded in telling a story of a musician and political activist and making it relevant and applicable for a 2009 audience to care. The final segment of Act 1 entitled, “Black President” also was the same name of Fela Kuti’s greatest album. One can’t help but draw parallels to our own current Presidency. It was always Fela’s dream to be the president of Nigeria and he tried several times to nominate
himself creating his own political party called the Movement of the People with several followers. Once again the final number, “B.Y.O.C” is about challenging the government and political figures while having your voice heard. These themes obviously play well today and are a reflection of who we are today as a society here in the U.S. At one point the character of Fela looks into the audience and asks, “Who’s coffin are you willing to carry?”.
If the above themes aren’t enough for you, FELA incorporates modern multimedia imagery as a backdrop that accentuates but doesn’t distract while the dancing is nothing short of electrifying often times spilling into the aisles including the mezzanine. The music is worth your ticket price alone as Fela Kuti is considered the father of Afro Beat which is a fusion of jazz, funk, phychedelic rock and traditional West African chants and rhythms.
Fela is at the Eugene O’Neil Theatre in New York City. Check out the official website for ticket info. here: FELA
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Take a look at Behind the Scenes footage of FELA!