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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
The long waka ("walk") west on 37th Street doesn't quite take you as far as the Javits Center, but it does transport you back three decades and all the way to Lagos, Nigeria. You are at The Shrine, the legendary club cum political enclave of Fela Anikulapo Kuti (Sahr Ngaujah). Whether you arrive knowing Fela through his music, his politics or (as with most of the audience) not at all, you will leave infused with everything Fela; the sensory experience is that complete. And you will be better for it.
When we last encountered Bill T. Jones, the great choreographer had won a Tony for his maiden voyage into musical theater, Spring Awakening. That was an eye-opening experience in which he managed to find the organic in Wedekind's 19th Century adolescents and translate it into 21st Century America choreography. It was perhaps all the more astonishing because he was working with performers who were not, seriously, dancers. In Fela!, he gets real dancers to work with —- over a dozen of them —- and he also gets to not only direct, but also have his hand in the book. The result is one of the most visually complete theatrical experiences imaginable.
The show is, then, quite something to see. Marina Draghici has transformed the entire auditorium of 37th Arts into Fela's Shrine. Scrims (both upstage and, later, down) boldly enable both Robert Wierzel's lights and Peter Nigrini's videos. Other videos and images will be projected onto the side walls of the theater. Draghici's costumes are an abundance of African exuberance and, not surprisingly, of a piece with the sets.
This is not to suggest that the show is anything less to hear — the Brooklyn-based band Antibalas, ten musicians deep, richly delivers Fela's songs with all of the rhythm, bass and brass it requires. The tireless Ngaujah leads the cast of singers, with splendid solo assistance from Abena Koomson (who portrays his mother, Funmilayo) and Sparlha Swa (who is the chief among his female influences, Sandra). Robert Kaplowitz manages to get the sound just right in this notoriously clumsy theater.
Getting everything just right also applies to Mr. Ngaujah, whose practically non-stop performance is so strong that one can't help but believe that this is, as described, Fela's last performance at The Shrine, and that 1000 Nigerian thug soldiers are about to storm the place and shut it down. Functioning as his own emcee, Fela quickly establishes a common denominator of knowledge for the audience — explaining through the band just what makes his Afrobeat music what it is, and through words and images just what life was like in the repressive Nigeria of the particular period. Although it would be nice to say it maintains its dramatic focus throughout, about halfway through the first act, Fela! loses its way, and never quite recovers its narrative control.
Does it matter? Not really. The historical facts are presented sufficiently for our purposes, and finely inform Fela Kuti's songs. Heavily influenced by his activist mother and by his glimpses of African-American radical politics of the era (his Sandra was in reality the American radical Sandra Smith, with whom he fell in love), Fela concocted his own politics (called the Movement of the People or M.O.P.); engineered his own political campaign for the presidency of Nigeria; and even, at one point, declared the compound including The Shrine to be an independent country, Kalakuta (which means "rascal"). That the show falters in providing linear clarity on all these points likely reflects a most apt verisimilitude.
Jones is of course a master of conveying detail without words; here, those details coalesce through images and sound with such nuance and force that they underscore just how ineffective words can sometimes be at expressing the visceral. At the curtain call (which is quite a bit more than you might expect), Jones joined the cast and band onstage, not simply to take a bow, but to add his own coda to his piece, in the way he does best — in dance. It showed us everything we needed to know about this true treasure.