"Fela!" is a masterful Broadway musical about the life of Nigerian musical superstar and inventor of Afrobeat Fela Kuti. I went last night to have-look and consider it the best musical I've ever seen. It takes place in De Shrine, Fela Kuti's Lagos nightclub, in the 1970s, where Fela and his followers would gather to dance, play music, smoke pot, attend consciousness-raising lectures, and perform Yoruban rites.
This is a very different musical, in that it demands a level of participation from the audience that most performances don't. The fourth wall isn't just broken in "Fela!" It doesn't even exist. From the first, Fela, played by Sahr Ngaujah, speaks directly to the audience, welcoming us to De Shrine and schooling us on musical theory, dancing, and African politics. He's pretty much the only speaking character in the play, barring a few choice words from the ghost of his mother Funmilayo Kuti, played by Patti LaBelle. It's almost a one-man show, but not really, because Fela was the voice of his generation, so when he speaks, he speaks for all of the dancers and musicians and radicals who lived with him in his compound across the street from De Shrine. He speaks about his childhood desire to get out of Nigeria and live in London or America, his political awakening in the Black Power nightclubs of Los Angeles, his return to Nigeria, and his love for his country's potential, mixed with his hate of his country's corruption. Fela Kuti was arrested over 200 times because he spoke out openly against the generals and multi-national oil and diamond companies that made Nigeria the most corrupt country in Africa. But even after soldiers raided and burned his compound, torturing and raping his friends and murdering his mother, he never abandoned Nigeria for a safer life in exile.
"Fela!" is funny, sad, hopeful, and has GREAT music. It won well-earned Tonys for Best Choreography and Costume Design. The men wear tight bellbottoms in bright primary colors, and the women wear funky dayglo combinations of traditional post-colonial Nigerian and pre-colonial Yoruban dresses. Scenes in the underworld have the dancers in shaggy, spiky animal- and plant-spirit costumes that glow white and silver under blacklight. The dances are a similar combination of Yoruban rhythms and more modern African movements--I think. I have to just guess because I've never seen dancing like that before, that uses such grand, sweeping gestures with the whole body. I've also never listened to Afrobeat before, but I made a Fela Kuti station on my Pandora account and right now I'm hearing Fela's "No Poi" from 1975.The BF and I had to make a choice between going to see "Memphis," the 2010 Tony winner for best musical, and the musical it beat for the prize, "Fela!" I read descriptions of both of the plays and suggested that "Fela!" might be the more consciousness-raising choice. Though both plays feature mostly-black casts (disappointingly rare on Broadway) and deal with issues of race, music, and culture, "Fela!" has the more difficult task of also presenting audiences with what could very well be their first glimpse into Nigerian culture. I only have the barest knowledge of mainstream Nigerian history, never mind their counterculture movement.
When I told my sister my reasoning behind going to "Fela!" instead of "Memphis," she laughed at me and said I was turning into such a liberal. Maybe, but the truth is, New York is less integrated than Hawaii. I don't see as many mixed-race couples in this city, and I have to make an effort here to seek out and attend events that aren't majority white. In Hawaii, no such effort is required; it just sort of happens on its own. I'm not criticizing. There are so many people here that it's easy to fall in with groups of people you're comfortable with, whereas Hawaii is so small that you either interact with everybody or you interact with nobody.
So do I feel like my consciousness was raised? Absolutely. And I had a great time. A rousing success all the way around.