Sahr Ngaujah, Paulette Ivory, Melanie Marshall, Lydie Alberto, Cindy Belliot, Nandi Bhebhe, Ricardo Coke Thomas, Scarlette Douglas, Jacqui Dubois, Poundo Gomis, Jazmine Jarret Thorpe, Aisha Jawando, Wanjiru Kamuyu, Nyron Levy, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Shelley-Ann Maxwell, Tamara McKoy Patterson, Catia Moto da Cruz, Pamela Okoroafor, Jermaine Rowe, Craig Stein.Jonathan Andre, Kwame Peter Crentsil, Sherinne Kayra Anderson, Thierry Picaut
Bill T. Jones
With wide grins and audibly creaking sacrums, tonight’s South Bank audience are on their feet, win’ing if not grinding to the insistent rhythms of Afrobeat.|
We are in Fela Kuti’s Shrine, the dancehall slash workshop slash hedonistic salon of 1970s Lagos. Careful not to spill our drinks on the plush Olivier upholstery, we respond to his requests for 2 o’clock by angling our torsos and pushing our collective genitalia somewhere out towards the direction of the Globe. 1 o'clock usually finds me having a quiet baguette on a bench, but here I'm jutting my hips over the stalls, apprehensive of messing up an expensively-coiffed blonde bobbing in front of me. 7 o’clock is an arse across the river towards Westminster, which feels both quietly satisfying and fitting.
The Broadway transfer Fela! brings the story of the irreverent Afrobeat legend who manufactured a bastion of musical and political consciousness in a late 20th century Nigeria ravaged by dictatorship and Global capital. This shining, bursting production interweaves Megamusical spectacle and canny political-point-making, combining parades of Brechtian placardary with shimmering, earthy bodies. Ultimately however, it falls short of according its protagonist the true greatness it rightly insists is his due.
Even in the globalised Now the dancing remains strange. Somehow exaggerated, compelled to the edge of grotesquery by murkier undercurrents of the Afrobeat. The muscular arcs and rapid-steps convey unfamiliar logics - demi-pointe, pointe, all the points, no point - a whirl of tribal stomps and animal shimmers. But just as you are tempted to sink back into the aesthetic pleasure of the carnival, the sheer legibility of the choreography resists soft-gaze. Bodies segue from torture to ecstasy, nooses and guns, domination and authority. At one moment the tall graceful woman is the “zombie” soldier of the Nigerian government, at another a man mimes electrocution while hanging out the back of his partner, all isolated propulsion. The pleasurable competition between black and white bodily idioms, between authority and resistance, parodic and playful, give an eloquent testimony to life at the post-colonial sharp-end.
But always at the heart of it an energy, a fiery surplus, and the sense of new dangerous indisciplines to set the post-colonial body free. It was that other great emblem of emancipation Ghandi that linked the body to the Indian nationalist struggle, declaring it to be a micro-site of politics, but rather than advocating fasting for control, Fela’s approach was to infuse fit bodies with beats and sweat, heat and light.
And while the cast sweat superbly, we are always reminded that it is Fela doing the infusing. The guts and the hips on stage tonight are shared purposeful space, the mind and the orchestrating agency belong to the man. The Kalakata Republic, declared by Fela Kuti in 1970 to be independent from Nigeria, is presented first and foremost as an erotic fiefdom. It is a stage for Fela to relate to us stories transfiguring Africa and himself, and the play structures the dizzying centrifuge of hierarchy he created amongst his troupe into the spectacle of human pyramids and bodily sedan chairs.
The whole thing seethes with the worship of able-bodies, and as much as it feels slightly awkward in doing so, cannot resist abandoning itself to phallocentrism, closing its eyes and dancing to its rhythms - a dance-floor paradox with a West End budget.
Bar the brief appearance of Paulette Ivory as a brazenly individuated US Marxist Feminist with the fighting allure of a radical western womanhood, and an unconvincing Oedipal scene with his mother (played by Melanie Marshall with a magnificent bear-pit angel-punch of a voice), the women of the play draw a blank, unobtrusively relegated to the synchronised body and the chorus line.
And while this works to some degree - when the only statements from Fela’s 27 wives come after the attack by Government troops on the compound, detailing appalling abuses, and the second act is prefaced by women carrying bowls and jugs as the audience chatter, at which points the correspondence between Fela’s traditional and the State’s repressive control of women’s bodies is there to be drawn - the play’s refusal of the women’s experience comes off as too careful with its idol, a nervousness that sticks close to its man.
Not unconnected but on safer ground, is the establishment its protagonist’s claims to be a pioneering jazzologist and heir to modernism. From the constructivism-in-coloured-pencil backdrop of quilted planes painted on corrugated iron, to the pop art signage, to the poster-paint Yoruba portraits and projected newspaper clippings - Marina Draghici’s enormous ghetto cathedral of a set is both majestic in its sweep and colour, and a beautifully observed sign-post to Fela’s artistic world.
In the centre of it, Fela intones that he will BID his sound, “break it down” for us in the manner of a jazz reveal - and we are whisked from Fela’s adoption of Afro-Cuban percussion, to his flirtations with Frank Sinatra on British television, to his dismay at cheap James Brown imitators in Nigeria. This is all neatly observed, as is the invocation of Christian gospel as the musical heritage which Fela seeks to transcend. “I hate it for everything it stands for, but I love it because I know from where it comes”.
All of this is achieved by the adroit backing band, who nail the whiplash precision and only come slightly mannered to the giddy fevers and gut-shots of Fela’s singular music. In the central role, Broadway’s original Sahr Ngaujah does a fine job of creating an alluring and hostile Fela, whose relentless courting of the audience is always countered by a snarling resistance to any moony infatuation we might have with him. And while his dancing is taut and impeccable there is always going to be a gap of energy between the actor and the man he portrays, never so evident as in the legendary saxophone solos which come off a little shy.
As a colourful, political megamusical Fela! is certainly treading new ground, and for that should be applauded. It is vast, layered and spectacular. The invocation of Shell, Enron, and Halliburton on camo-backed placards, of James Ivory, Ken Saro-Wiwa and “the cuts” on child-sized coffins, make for decent symbolic moments.
The spotty dialogue, which includes a rough-hewn section of call & response, and slight lack of charisma can be forgiven for the astuteness and sheer scale of the musical spectacle. What is harder to forgive is its sentimental protection of its subject. Its failure to realise that shielding Fela from blunt White Western equality critiques which might seek to judge black masculinity, ultimately makes for a reduced portrayal - something kitschy and more easily forgotten. Good art makes brave decisions, it is as capaciously introspective as it is capable of setting the political tone. Fela! undershoots. In its haste to tell us that Fela Kuti made great art, it neglects aspiration to great art itself.