The two most noticeable things about the new musical Fela!—and they may be all that a musical needs to succeed—are, first, that it has a spectacularly good band (Antibalas) and, second, that Sahr Ngaujah is giving a spectacular display of nonstop skill, charm, and endurance in the title role. Having two such strong assets is a very lucky break for Fela!, because, although it has any number of other good points—excellent music for the spectacular band to play, a fair amount of enjoyable dancing, a story with potentially enormous meaning and power—it scatters its virtues around so haphazardly, and often so repetitively, that it could wear out a lot of audience enthusiasm by the time it drags to its inconclusive finish.
But whenever your enthusiasm flags, the band and Ngaujah’s performance, neither of which seems capable of flagging, come charging back in to perk you up again. It seems a shame, as well as a puzzle, that they should have to keep performing this rescue operation when they ought to be flying high on a show with so much good material in it; the material ought to carry them instead of vice versa.
Fela!‘s story, as people better versed in world music than I would know going in, is the biography of one of modern Africa’s great popular musicians, the songwriter-performer Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938–1997). As director-choreographer Bill T. Jones and his co-librettist, Jim Lewis, tell the tale, Fela’s life, after an initial period of wandering and vocational indecisiveness, was an unbroken string of successes, with only one fly in its ointment: His songs and concert performances were beloved by everybody who heard them worldwide, but not by the military dictatorship that ran his native Nigeria from 1983 to 1998. Their hostility makes sense, since Fela’s songs are subversive like the best radical songs, catchy in tune and socially defiant in their sharp-edged lyrics. People who know the oeuvre of the Brecht-Eisler team, or that of Pete Seeger, will find many analogues, though no allusions: Fela’s music belongs to Africa, and to the jazz-pop world of African-Americans, all the way.
Like the government that exiled Brecht and Eisler, and the one that kept yanking Seeger off TV, the Nigerian military dictatorship had a vested interest in intimidating artists and intellectuals, the two groups most likely to object to its activities. Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s leading poet and playwright, went into exile; the writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who led protests against what Shell and other big oil companies were doing to the ecology of his region, was mysteriously killed. Neither of them rates a reference in Jones and Lewis’s script for Fela!, a work as short on historical context as it is cursory about its hero’s biographical data. It’s largely a monologue, ostensibly being delivered at what Fela threatens to make his final concert appearance in his native land; friends, wives, and others who figured in his life mostly get no more than passing mention.
The only other character of substance, more described than dramatized, is his mother, Funmilayo, apparently an indomitably strong-minded woman of the left. (American audiences may have mixed feelings about someone the script enthusiastically describes as the “confidante of Nkrumah and comrade of Chairman Mao,” two world leaders who didn’t exactly leave a legacy of unadulterated happiness behind them.) Already dead when the show’s desultory action begins, Funmilayo remains a guiding spirit constantly in the background for Fela. Her murder by the military dictatorship, which occurred during a raid on his compound in which many members of his entourage were viciously brutalized, seems to have been the pivotal event that provoked him to contemplate leaving Nigeria for good. When Fela, at what’s designed to be the show’s climax, makes a spirit journey to the land of the dead to seek his mother’s guidance, the authors predictably have her advise him to change his mind.
Jones apparently sees this spiritual voyage as the evening’s peak, a roots-conscious Africanist update of the traditional musical’s second-act dream ballet à la Agnes de Mille. Oddly, the sequence’s prolonged slow build and elaborate staging make it the show’s least effective section, weighing Fela! down just when you wish it would get moving. It brought back memories of the similar ritual journey on which Phylicia Rashad conducted John Earl Jelks a few years back, in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean—a dramatic event which, without all of Jones’s showbiz apparatus, was considerably briefer and several dozen times more effective.
Not that Jones’s staging overall isn’t strong; this sequence is the only one where his hand visibly slackens. In the rest of the evening, he makes extensive use of film and video, sometimes informatively. He draws a good deal from traditional African dance patterns, which tend to get wearisome for me but which provoke cheers from others. Though Ngaujah, with his blend of genial ease and steely tirelessness, is clearly the show’s mainstay, he’s hardly its sole means of support: In the ensemble around him, which mingles actual Africans with African-Americans and African-Europeans, nobody ever comes off looking or sounding less than first-rate at the more limited tasks they’ve been assigned.
In sum, Fela!‘s power comes from its hero’s commanding personality, from the brash good humor and bite of his songs, and from the joyous, free-spirited way they’re performed. What’s frustrating is that its story, the tale of a popular artist who used his art as a perpetual act of defiance against a mercilessly inhumane regime, never gets fully told. Fela’s death is literally a footnote flashed on a screen in the midst of the finale; you never learn what he died of (AIDS, the existence of which he denied), how he lived with the military regime after choosing to stay and fight, or how that regime ultimately fell from power. More’s the pity: With the Republicans noisily urging us toward a future in which America becomes a puny dictatorship dominated by militarism and greed, we could use a more cogent display of the example Fela set.