Fela! Revisited: Breaking it down

This musical celebrating the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, delivers a vision which connects history and the contemporary moment.
The more I see this fine work of art, the more I uncover layers of brilliance.

[Theater: Fela!]

Who is Obalogun? 

Who are the monsters who kill with their terrible cries? What happens when the Cat wakes up?

I thought that I had entered a dream during my first viewing of Fela! at the Eugene O’Neill Theater early in December 2009. 
I was so immersed in a collision of colors and the orchestrated pandemonium that I could barely breathe.

Early in Act I, I had to pull away from the cosmic energies so furiously spinning to ask, “What mind could harmonize such breathtaking wonder?” 

To my far right, in a box seat sat Director and Choreographer, Bill T. Jones. He was the visible presence of years of incredibly hard work, research, collaboration, patience, experience and sheer talent.

At my most recent viewing, Saturday 22 May 2010, ticket holders  started fancy stepping in the lobby and we kept shaking until we reached our seats, enjoying the live music which precedes the opening of each show: the Afrobeat created by musician and activist, the internationally celebrated, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, title role played by Sahr Nguajah and  Kevin

How to describe  Fela!? Fela! is timeless, almost uncanny and timless as we see the horrific results of oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico, destroying livelihoods and lives. Fela! is life-affirming educational entertainment. It has everything that most popular literature lacks; it gives us an indispensable teaching tool.

It is true recreation (re-creation): an experience which connects us to self-knowledge, an experience which continuously makes us new.

It is art born of a magnificent imagination which comprehends science and art. Compassion flows in every song, in every dance. It is art which allows the audience to dream. It is art layered with beauty and terror. It is light in its complete spectrum.  It speaks truth effectively, in a word or in dance. It speaks truth with courage regarding religion, enslavement and economic exploitation. It connects us to history and African culture, especially the Yoruba culture of Nigeria.

It is the coming together of Africans born on the continent and Africans born in America.

In Act I of two acts, Fela! tells many stories  within the main story of the protagonist’s struggles to live in a corrupt Nigeria following independence from the British. While Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, has already been murdered by the state  as the musical opens, she comes to life through dream, and through memory. A cat, ornately sculptured, is placed near her portrait. 
There could be trouble when the Cat wakes up. Act I begins as the narratives of all world heroes begin, with a departure. Fela will leave Nigeria and begin a physical journey to London, New York, California, Berlin, Madrid and other international localities. 
But the greater dangers occur in Act II as Fela struggles to make the ascent, to reach the higher realm of the ancestors so that he can communicate with his mother. Here he risks mind and body in order to save himself and community. The story will come full circle when Fela returns home.

The circle is one of several powerful symbols which transports the audience. It’s the movement of the clock.  It’s in the nine wives who encircle Fela.

Nine lights spiral on the floor all going counter clockwise, following the movement of planets and Sun in our own solar system–when viewed above the Sun. In another scene, there are fifteen circles to set another less pleasant mood.

You can expect the circles to reverse direction and to increase the speed of rotation as things take a turn for the worse. And they do. All circles completely disappear from the stage when Fela is tortured.  There is a grate of square lights on the floor of the darkened stage.

The general public, aspiring writers and other artists will benefit greatly from a closer look at symbols and techniques at work in this musical. The general public needs to protect itself from literature which deforms; our young can be transformed by literature which heals.

How does Fela! generate such life supporting energies? Consider the basics: use of light and color, water and fire, iron, the cat and the rat, the ladder, and  the vehicles which facilitate the opening movement of both acts. In addition to symbols, there is  knowledge of physics expressed in the choreography and in the narrative of Obalogun, the great warrior. Dialogue between Fela and the audience and other devices create an underlying serenity which permeates the musical.

The whole band unobtrusively rolling across the stage accompanies Funmilayo’s movement during a dream. A lyrical gliding of the ladder accompanies Sandra Isadore ,played by Saycon Sengbloh, as she descends, singing a love song to Fela. These and other moments deepen introspection and balance high pitched emotion. The communication is brought full circle.  It’s no wonder that the air literally crackles with electricity as people emerge from the theater.        

One could simply follow the light and color and experience  pure exhilaration.  

In Fela! light is really brought to light. In contrast with the many scenes bathed in a lavish flow of colors, and pounding rhythmic  music,  there are scenes in  black and gray, all color drained from the stage during times of distress. Together with the absence of color there is silence. At one point there are 18 long seconds of pure black. That’s taking a chance.  And it works. (It’s allowing the battery to fully discharge so that it can fully recharge. )In contrast, when Funmilayo, played by Lillias White, hits those bone chilling  notes in her song of courage, she breaks the white full spectrum light into is component colors. And as her voice rises, the color gradually returns to the stage. In each act, the colors which Fela wears carry particular  importance: blue in Act I, pink and white in Act II..  There was no way that he could make an ascent to a higher realm without being dressed in white.

The song which Funmilayo sings is of Yemaya, mother of the Gods who saw her son, Obalogun, the great warrior, fighting the demons who kill with their cries. The warrior stuffed his ears with dirt when threatened by the monsters, lured them into his arms  then burst into flames, killing the demons and cleansing the earth.   But Yemaya  saw her son on fire and wept  tears which changed to torrential rains and put out the flames which could have destroyed  her son.

Ogun, whose colors are green and black, is the Orisha of iron, hunting and war. In the cosmos, iron behaves in ways identical to the behavior of this Orisha; hours after a star forms  iron, it will collapse and supernova.  In its exploding death the star will give birth to all the other elements in the periodic table in rapid succession. The ingredients needed for life on Earth come through the death of the star. Of course, there must be the cooling off, there must be  water in order for life to exist we know it. Ogun is associated creation and formation, as blacksmith, and associated with communal support as hunter, providing nutrition.

Through iron, we have our connections to Obalogun; the core of our Earth is made of iron. Iron enables our red blood cells to carry oxygen, without which we would have no life.

Science works closely with this art. The fantastic dance reflects a working knowledge of physics.  One must understand the laws of gravity before tossing  dancers horizontally, and elevating dancers overhead. Knowledge of culture is also indispensable in the creation of fine literature.  Fela, whose name means “he who shines with greatness” is from Abeokuta, a village known for its great warriors.  Anikulapo, he reminds us, means “I carry death in my pouch. No mortal can kill me.”

We’ll all be singing, “Water no get enemy” for quite some time.  We are told that even if water kills your child, you will still have to use it. There is rich philosophical content in this work. Water is the sacred vehicle that will carry us to a higher realm in Act II..  In Act I the opening vehicle  was the bus which carried the embattled Fela people to jail. In the serenity of the water dance, which is a balance to the frenetic dance of the Orishas to follow, the dancers move as though peacefully rowing boats.  Sometimes the bodies of the dancers become the water itself. As the musical opens, we see large drops of water cross the portrait of Funmilayo which turns and comes to life each time Fela speaks of leaving Nigeria. The water is both tears and rain. As already cited, it is water which will save the warrior’s life.

In this musical, there are no curtains.  And yet, during one of the most harrowing scenes in Act II there are two “curtains” of the thinnest fabric which allow us to see Fela as he journeys and prepares to enter his mother’s realm. It’s no easy trip. Here, the drum, the impulse of life, and the Egungun of the spirit world, entrap Fela,  each approaching from opposite ends of the passage, the drums rapidly beating and the spirit as rapidly dancing with the struggling Fela running from one to the other, trying to break free. The humor of the intent and heavily focused drummer increases the intensity of the ordeal.

It is with some measure of relief that we watch the thin curtains rise, allowing Fela to enter a larger space which is not free from great perils.

So much drama unfolds in Part I, that the audience, already fulfilled,  would be hard pressed to believe that Part II could offer more.  It does. After intermission, Fela’s direct address to the audience,”So you decided to come back?” makes us laugh.  And then we enjoy new discoveries.  We see the maternal energies continued in the African American lover, Sandra, whom we first saw wearing red and black (colors of Eshu, guardian of the crossroads), then later in Act II,  wearing blue, colors of Yemaya, associated with Fela’s mother.

Humor, sign of higher intelligence, provides the underlying energy for 80% of the musical even in some of the most somber moments. Before his torture (and the audience is visibly distressed), Fela comes out wearing the coat and cap of a military officer, and for the moment, the incongruity makes the audience laugh. But not for long. This does not  detract from the brutal beatings which hospitalized Fela for 17 days.  Everyone needs to hear the lament pouring from the body of the tortured Fela (played by another actor, Ismael Kouyate). The theater falls quiet under the weight of this terrible beauty.  The same voice that earlier sang James Brown’s “I got the feeling” with an irrepressible energy, and  left the audience in rollicking laughter, now chants in long melodious anguish through unbearable pain.   This is one of many highly imagined  moments where truth is not compromised by humor, this humor which is the twin to truth. This is a critical teaching moment demonstrating how to effectively dramatize  violence without abusing both narrator and audience.

The author trusted us to recognize the intersection of beauty and terror in this moment and in many others throughout Fela!.
As for numbers? When Fela first enters the stage he is escorted by four dancers. The African American lover, Sandra Isadore, descends the ladder accompanied by four attendants. When Fela is to climb the ladder,  this physical effort is accompanied by four members of the ensemble pointing up. We find a similar attention to the number four, representing totality, the cardinal points and representing the superlative in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The nine wives of Fela on stage represent well the twenty-seven (two plus seven equals nine) wives that he married in real life.  Numbers are used in a most ominous way especially the day Funmilayo died.  The time was given in silence, with only a single chime sounding; 5:45 she was dragged up the stairs.  5:47 she was thrown from the window. Earlier, in Act I, the “clock game” generated life.  Cultural understanding of numbers provides useful insights in literary interpretation.

This musical celebrating the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, delivers a vision which connects history and the contemporary moment. The more I see this fine work of art, the more I uncover layers of brilliance. 

Summer 2009, in Nigeria, I overheard a customs agent ask a young Russian, “Why have you come to Nigeria?”
The young man’s firm answer,”Off shore-drilling,” burned in my ears. It sounded like, “To violate your mother.” At the time I did not know that only a few months, the violation of off-shore drilling would reach American soil.

Lines from Fela!:
“Like rat we steal
Make a hole     
Oil flow”

“Ax Falls on British Petroleum,”an old Nigerian headline almost feels uncanny  as the past looks into the present day.

In this Broadway production, the audience is physically surrounded by history. Every wall of the theater is filled with sculptures, portraits, and cinematic images of actual newspaper headlines: Majority Live in Poverty; Soldiers Advised to Exercise Restraint with Public, Stern Warnings to Students; Army Retakes University, 35 Students Dead. There are images of Angela Davis, Malcolm and Martin shelf, including The Dead Lecturer by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka). The new Black Studies programs of the 1960’s and The Black Arts Movement are brought to life in this inspiring narrative.

Even without a story, Fela! would be worth its weight in gold. 

The innovative, fast shaking dance, the cosmic colors, and the songs all speak a universal language. The musicians alone would make the production more than phenomenal.  But the education delivered with the entertainment makes this production, Fela! priceless. 


“Speaking Truth To Empower.”

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