Review by Tulis McCall
16 Nov 2009
This is an event. This is a concert of music and dance that tells a story. It is not a musical or a play and sits well outside any box that you can imagine. This shouldn’t be a surprise because Fela! is the child of Bill T. Jones who has been creating the extraordinary for years.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was the hottest musician in Africa in the 1970’s, just when Nigeria had joined Opec and the oil money was flowing in to support the various military men who ran the country. Fela had studied and played music in London where he went to school, then discovered the music of the Black Power Movement in the late 1960’s in the United States. He created his own style called the Afrobeat and brought it back to his home.
He settled in Lagos where he created a commune, a recording studio and a nightclub called The Shrine. He sang of corruption and rebellion. He inspired his followers and pi**ed off the government over and over again. After recording Zombie, which was a metaphorical attack on the military, his compound was attacked and his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a feminist activist known as “The Mother of Africa” was thrown out a second floor window and died as a result.
On the night of this concert we attend, Fela (Sahr Ngaujah) is considering leaving his home. He banters with the audience, lecturing us on the greed of oil companies, the relentless power of the government that has arrested and beaten him over 200 times without stopping him, and the benefits of moving to the beat. He smokes igbo and is attended by several extraordinary dancers (he once married 27 of his dancers and later kept only 12). But mostly he is looking to his mother and asking her spirit to speak to him. Fela invokes the Yoruba Gods – who are getting a lot of play this season between this show and Tarrel McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays – and asks that his mother speak a blessing on his departure.
On the two occasions when Funmilayo does speak, the show literally stops. Funmilayo (Lillias White) is indeed Mother Africa. She is Mother Everything and looms so large that her strutting, smoking, scintillating son seems tiny in comparison. Funmilayo sings of the roots of rebellion born of oppression “When cat sleep, rat go bite him tail. What happens when the cat wakes up?” And she sings of everything except retreat. “Let the battles rage, let the demons cry, let the fires burn, let waters rise. Even if you must die, stand strong. Never run.”
It is Funmilayo’s moments that are shattering, and this is the curious twist of this show. Fela is full of charisma and struggle. He is arrogant and inspiring. He is sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, Nigerian style. In short, he is someone to admire but not emulate. Fela gets you up out of your seat, but it is Funmilayo who keeps you standing and gives you a direction in which to move.
Perhaps this is what Bill T. Jones had in mind. Watch the flashy performance that is in your face, then turn and look at the solid grounded force that created it, and sit at that altar. It is not a bad idea.
And perhaps the most exciting part of the show isn’t the show at all. The audience is not your typical Broadway show, let’s be quiet because we are in a theatre, kind of crowd. From the minute you enter you are engulfed in a semi-night club atmosphere. Jazz is playing and people are strolling around with cocktails chatting with one another. People you don’t know smile and nod. You move to the music. Whatever it was you were carrying in with you is left at the door like a coat you let slip off your shoulders into the hands of a caring attendant. It happens that fast. You get to have the magic be in you before you watch it happen on the stage, courtesy of Mr. Jones. And is stays with you until way after you leave the theatre.
"Singular, sensational show."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"One of the most original and exciting shows to come around in a long while"
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"This is as close as Broadway gets to fully immersive theater."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Less structured than your typical Broadway musical but surely more encompassing than most."
John Simon for Bloomberg
"Fela! earns its exclamation point, joyfully and relentlessly."
Elysa Gardner for USA Today
"Tight, sizzling staging that hits you with the force of a tidal wave."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Go to 'Fela!' anticipating a super-stimulating, world-class song-and-dance concert, led by a remarkable performer, and you won't be disappointed."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Wildly entertaining show."
Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter
"At times, it's repetitive and self-indulgent."
David Rooney for Variety