Fela! Lives on Broadway

As I settled into my mezzanine level seat in the Eugene Theater on Broadway and 8th, it became pretty obvious that this was not just a show, this was the real deal. It was not just theatric display it was the celebration of a life. The eponymously titled “Fela!” set in the grandiose “shrine” where Fela held sway in 1979, was carefully crafted to be at once entertaining and educative. With a production mindful of a careful attention to detail (the famous Iya Laje that walked Fela’s real life stage in interregnum while the Abami himself was being awaited), the show was at once historically sound and contemporarily relevant.

In life and six feet below the ground, Fela Anikulapo Kuti remains an enigma to be decoded to many and mystery to be unraveled by both his fans and detractors. Hence, it was no surprise that the audience devoured the action set on stage, at every round at which it was being dished. Marked with very few applause line zingers, the immutable Fela ranting on display gave itself more to thought than standing ovation.

The best act of the day surely was the main act – Fela (Zimbabwean Emmy Award Winner, Kevin Mambo). With the near complete imitation of the real man himself, his almost complete immersion in the act takes the audience through the complexity of the enigmatic Fela.

At once confident, yet many times questioning his participation in the struggle for rights for his fellow countrymen. Referencing “the game”, Fela especially after the destruction of his autonomous republic and subsequent death of his mother had some soul search as to whether the path of activism which saw him colliding with status quo was worth it all. This scene also showcased the strength of the influence of his mother on the path he chose. Indeed, the genes of activism ran in Fela’s vein; sans his late mother, brother (Beko) and cousin, Wole Soyinka.

The supporting cast around the main act were themselves dexterous and convincing. With great display of acrobatics, theatre and wriggling of the waist, one gets to appreciate the draw of the shrine to both friend and foes at its height. The complete non-Nigerian cast made justice to the character, the form and the depth of Fela’s life. The producers of this show deserve the thumbs up for not just carefully showcasing the essence of Fela’s life, but for parsing the complexities of such a richly lived life.

If the acts were good, the music had to be great. With the complete ensemble of the best of Fela, you can’t help to get the occasional exhilaration only Afro beat can deliver and the earthshaking blend of sax, drum and an eclectic of percussive instruments. The genius of the arranger himself shines through the masterpiece of musical tapestry that such blend lends itself to. Only a great mind that ranks with the best of them (Bach and Mozart, thank you very much) can develop such a masterful and yet enjoyable superior music that makes contemporary musicians (of our day) come across as novices of the trade.

Midway ones feeling of vindication and pride in this son of Africa is easily replaced by the reality of paradise lost. For as the Act 2 resumes with Vagabond in Power & Zombie being replayed, with a somber focus on the evil the evil cabal that still has Nigeria in its grip, one weeps albeit silently for our country.

For if one were to live in 2009 and go back in time machine to 1979 when this play were set, the same set of jokers and charlatans- Obasanjo, Yar’Ardua, Danjuma and their “yes” boys still dominate our politics.

The international conspiracy that keeps this cabal relevant (thank you United States for visiting IBB in Minna) cannot be missed as International Thief Thief played in the background. The exceptional castigation of the ITTs of today i.e. AIG, Goldman Sachs and IMF drew instant applause from a crowd already ginned for the activist outlook set by the main act. New York!

The only criticism of this presentation (mine only) would be the lack of details on what killed the legend; and if anything it had to do with the counter culture lifestyle (of free sex and free ganja) he had chosen. Firmly rooted in his experience of the real American counter culture during the civil rights/Vietnam era of Hippies and free love, coinciding with his transformational American experience in the late 60s, Fela “freed” his rather conservative audience and shocked them.

Indeed, the silence of even the closing credit on matters of HIV/AIDS does not help the cause of the activist community within the black Diaspora community (the primary audience of the Eugene Theatre) to “destigmatize” the disease. So what if he had died of AIDS? So what if it were malaria? While Sean “Jay Z” Carter & his co-executive producers (Will and Jada Smith) deserve all our applause for bringing this enigma to Broadway, there is no doubt that a crucial opportunity to educate their audience on the scorch of HIV/AIDS on not just the continent of Africa, but within the African American community.

As the show drew to an end, I was sure to break one personal rule: I was going to coming back to see this. Who wouldn’t? Fela lived his life the way and manner he chose, and in death it sure was a pleasure to watch it replay. Fela showed us the virtue of “different”. His enigma is better revealed in his non-conformal attitude that “yabis” all sycophancy, boot licking and pledge of “loyalty to a mere mortal, called President”. His idiosyncrasies, be it his women or his “vegetable”, and ultimately his death, revealed to us the fatalism of iconoclasts. Or perhaps, the value they bring to our society: the richness and the fullness of mankind.

No doubt, Fela lived a full life. Nigeria was better off with him than without him. For in our current predicaments we can harkens back to the lessons of the past from the man, and the legend to whom Broadway pays homage in a must see show that every living Nigerian must not miss. On Broadway, the man and the legend lives, but in our hearts he shall never be forgotten. Baba 70, Abami Eda, Fela omo Iye Funmilayo, sun re o.

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