Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

So Alive

January 23, 2010

Sahr Ngaujah in Fela!
Photo: Monique Carboni 2009

Its title may have an exclamation mark, but Fela! the musical at the Eugene O’Neill Theater is anything but your typical Broadway fare. In fact it’s probably the best new musical to arrive in New York since at least Spring Awakening. It’s one of those shows where time stops and you wonder if all of what you’re seeing is really happening. Needless to say it’s much better than good and is packed with so much energy that it’s nearly radioactive. Fela!, which was conceived by choreographer Bill T Jones and Jim Lewis, is technically a “jukebox musical” using the music of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti to tell the story of his politically and musically charged life. But to call this a “jukebox musical” really sells the show short in terms of both its energy and aspirations. It makes Green Day’s American Idiot (which will arrive in New York after a run in Berkeley last year) look like Mamma Mia!.

Fela is played by two alternating actors, Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah. Ngaujah appeared at the matinee I saw on Saturday and gave a raw, edgy, and often very touching performance. Much of the biographical thrust of the story concerns Fela’s struggle to honor his mother and stay committed to his Nigerian homeland. It covers everything from his time in Los Angeles to the repeated harassment faced by his family band members in Nigeria. The role of his mother who was murdered in one of those attacks on his compound, was handled by Broadway legend Lillias White with a pair of vocal powerhouse numbers. But as important as these vital performances were, the show owes far more to perhaps one of the hardest working ensembles currently on a New York stage. The twenty or so dancers and band members are in motion almost the entire three hours. They race around the stage and aisles throughout a theater that has been remade with a variety of paintings and artifacts to emulate the Shrine, Fela’s legendary Lagos night-club/commune he worked out of for many years. It’s a show that has you ready to jump out of your seat on several occasions so there’s plenty of audience participation built into the experience as well.

Perhaps the thing I appreciated most of the many great things about Fela!, is the free and easy way it mixes the personal and political aspects of the artist's life. It also doesn’t shy away from connecting the dots between Fela’s political concerns in the 60s and 70s and the continued legacy of colonization even today. It also picks up on Fela's spiritual beliefs in a segment where he goes to visit his mother for advice after her death. It immediately reminded me of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and brought to life things that seemed rather abstract to me on the page at the time. But when Fela paints his face and crosses over to the underworld it rivals the journey of Gluck’s Orpheo. Fela! is no small work of art and will stay with you a long time. There’s so much more I could say, but you really should go see it yourself if you haven’t already.


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