Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Broadway Dance Review: To All Fela-Fanatics… Don’t Just Go See FELA! Go See it Again and Again and Again!

FELA! on Broadway, ©Monique CarboniFELA!, the new Broadway musical that marries the biopic story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti with his music, is a raw insightful adaptation of 37 Arts’ off Broadway version to the great white way.  This production is enhanced by the incredible spacial perspective and evocative powers of the design team.  The visionary choreography/direction from Bill T. Jones, changeable set which vibes-n-flows via video production, and costume design from Marina Draghici, as well as the innovative lighting design by Robert Weirzel, all place the audience at a brightly lit version of Fela’s beloved club, the Shrine.  The audience doesn’t miss a thing as this cozy theatre becomes a fringe Nigerian space, sweeping us all into the madness that becomes Fela’s MOP (Movement of the People).

Sahr Ngaujah is a quadruple threat playing Fela as he acts, sings, dances while playing both saxophone, drum and trumpet.  His ability to float between skills goes from strength to strength as he simultaneously takes on the persona of bandleader, disillusioned son, leader of a sociopolitical movement and lover to his many Queens (wives).  [The historical Fela was said to have married 24 women in an act of protest against Westernization and the Christianization of his beloved Nigeria.  He found protest in act like polygamy, smoking the peace pipe and even declaring his compound a sovereign nation].

Only the FIERCE Dancers Apply!So… here in the Kalakuta Republic, which basically translates to "rascally" from Swahili, the audience is drawn in by the uneven flow of the story and carefree style that, when combined, truly makes the production more accessible for Black audiences precisely because it is not formulaic.  Quite frankly, I like that it runs hot and loose with just about everything.  It is a casual, and at times, a crazed conversation between the audience and Fela.  The audience even gets the opportunity to stand up and get down with a free dance lesson!    A surefire recipe for a cult-like theater-in-the-making for "time-warped" FELA-Fanatics, this is a show that you will truly have to return to see time and time again in order to take it all in.

More like a rock concert vibe, the Highlife and AfroBeat band play powerful renditions of Fela’s most influential songs such at Upside Down, Zombie, MOP and more…  Arranged by the Brooklyn-based band, Antibalas, (a long time practitioner of the Afrobeat sound), the entire ensemble performs enmeshed in Fela’s flow and rhythmical structure infusing the story with emotion and electricity.

FELA! on Broadway, ©Monique CarboniAs the audience sits in their seats and the band warms up, very very slowly the dancers, "Fela’s Queens," begin to wind their waists off to the side, up on scaffolding, and out in the aisles until the whole theatre seems a "Shrine" to the beautiful black bottom.  Ain’t nothing wrong with it.  Besides, if by freeing your ass your mind follows, then the dancers in FELA! are all highly enlightened.  What I can’t stress enough is that they are all, all standouts in this cast and you get the feeling that this can of random parts has no filler.

A crowd pleaser and a Queen of the night with such versatility, Nicole Chantal de Weever all but breaks her back in several scenes where she flips between fierce African solo’s and beautiful snatched extensions.  While some of the male dancers like Corey Baker and Daniel Soto float between the African movement and the classical and contemporary dance vocabulary with grace and ease, the other women on stage, having familiar faces from the NYC African dance performance and class scene, look as if they have been dancing together for years.  (Actually, many of them have been doing just that, but not on Broadway).   Special kudos are in order to Rassaan Elijah “Talu” Green, who moves from being drummer to dancer with equal skill, and Gelan Lambert, an amazing tap technician who shows his improvisation skills well over that funky Afro Beat sound.  Who knew?  Before FELA!, Gelan has been known to be an awesome contemporary dancer in the "concert dance" world.  Werk!

Fela with SaxOther standouts in the cast are Saycon Sengbloh as Fela’s African American Venus who brings him a "Black Power" mentality.  The stereotype of the Black American Queen, strong and angry, is not lost in the role and neither is the humor of this genre of blaxsploitation.  Sengbloh takes us back to the 60’s with her all out belting voice as she “turns [his] world upside down” with books!  Yes, they are dancing onstage doing their African while reading books.  The characters Sandra and Fela go back and forth over which side is more messed up:  African American or African.  Finally, Fela concedes that he had to go all the way to America to understand what his mother had been trying to teach him all along.

Memorable lines from Ngaujah are in his description of colonialism as being metaphorically like "having guests in the house."  In a scene about “Hotel Africa,” he describes how at first “it’s quite nice” and then “things start to go missing.”  As the audience has a chuckle, Ngaujah begins to lists “Ashtrays, towels […] petroleum, diamonds, people!”  At this point, we realize that the fun jesting and joking around has quickly turned political, but not before he asked, “…and what do they leave in return?  Gonorrhea and Jesus!”  …OMFG

FELA! on Broadway, ©Monique CarboniSo yeah, this show is going to get real, real fast.  So, bring it fast and loose.  It’s about time for new blood on Broadway.  As Fela lights up a fatty and begins to describe his rise to fame and political ambitions, someone in the audience shouts “Puff puff pass.”  The work is irreverent, powerfully moving and one of the most insightful productions I have seen in a long time.  I hope that, as it gains in popularity, some of the funnier, raw, offensive, countercultural shit stays in!  For example, his monologue about taking a shit while imprisoned is funny, familiar, yet still foreign to the conservative American’s Puritan ethic.  So, the work quite wittily shakes cobwebs from ways of thinking to try to get something new to stick—a new "education."  Perhaps, it will be the countercultural revolution that stirs Fela’s soul and inflames his lyrics.

The most important question that is explored throughout the night is not colonialism, Christianity, police brutality, or government corruption, but rather, why Fela?  Why does he do all those crazy things?  How can Nguajah pull you in so completely that by the end you see him as saint and not sinner, revolutionary and not rascal, musical genius and not near-do-well, etc., etc.  Although the work often romanticizes and glorifies a lifestyle that causes so much pain to those closest to Fela (especially the women in his life), you can’t help but love Fela.

FELA! on Broadway, ©Monique CarboniUsing concepts from the Yoruba religion, the second act is spiritually unlike anything I’ve ever seen on Broadway.  The most amazing sections come toward the end in a sweeping all white ballet as Fela goes into a dream sequence in search of his beloved mother Funmilayo who has become an orisha (departed spirit who leads us from above) of the rain.  Played by Lillias White, the role is haunting and evocative and biographically balances Fela’s male chauvinism with his mother’s real feminist activism.  White’s singing sends chills down my spine and there are only a few dry eyes in the cast and audience as she takes her son under protection throughout as a watchful-eyed photo peers down on the audience in a three dimensional holograph.

Nguajah throws himself so completely into the role with his embodied talent that I often believe Fela is walking around in his skin.  He physicalizes his performance without making it a Broadway musical.  Instead, I feel like I am getting my hair braided and watching one of those African movies where I don’t understand why the two ladies in the film are going after each other with shoes, but I appreciate the fully committed way all the action takes place.  I feel that this work is a "watershed event’ on Broadway where something new brings a chance at real adventures for the audience.

FELA! on Broadway, ©Monique CarboniKeeping it fast and loose, the work ends quite as it began, unexpectedly powerful and poignantly political.  After the immense applause, Bill T. Jones leaps on stage and treats us with an African solo across the floor dropping to his knees mid-stage to shake and undulate his body into the wing and out the door…  I want to cry.  This is it!  This is contemporary African dance fusion where all are swept up in the spirit of the music that calls the body to move in new and exciting ways.

Go see FELA!  Bring friends and keep this on Broadway long enough to truly celebrate the legacy he left behind in his music, activism and larger than life persona.  Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997) R.I.P. brother… you deserve it.

CLICK HERE & CONNECT with the Members of the iDANZ Critix Corner! iDANZ Critix Corner
Official Dance Review by Sasha Deveaux
Performance:  FELA!
Choreographer: Bill T. Jones
Venue: Eugene O’Neill Theatre
Date: November 23, 2009 @ 8:00pm

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