In ‘Fela!’, infectious beats serve as soundtrack to Nigerian activist’s story

September 18, 2011

If your inner percussion section isn’t set free by “Fela!”, you might want to ask your seatmate to check your vital signs.

It’s hard to recall a musical of recent vintage that conjures with such explosive imaginative energy a man, his voice and his politics. That man would be Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late Nigerian singer-activist who pioneered his own sound, defined it as Afrobeat and used it as a powerful rhythm stick against the nation’s military government.

Directed and, just as crucially, choreographed by modern dance impresario Bill T. Jones, “Fela!” is galvanized by the hypnotic ministrations of Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the role of the entertainer known as Fela off-Broadway and then went on to play it for most of the show’s 463-performance Broadway run. He and the show now embark on a national tour, which had its official opening Friday night at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.

Although burdened by a sense of self-righteousness bordering on religious — at nearly three hours, it’s way too long — “Fela!” is a madly physical, prodigiously exuberant bio-musical, infused with African brio and outrage. (Fela died in 1997 at 58.) The sound of Afrobeat, produced on conga drums, saxophones, trumpets and guitars, functions as electroshock for the soul, and it is conveyed here with a mellow confidence by conductor Aaron Johnson and his nine-man onstage band.

The dancing, as you might expect of the gifted Jones, who brought a similar virtuosity to the movement of the Tony-winning “Spring Awakening,” has the magical intensity and the suaveness to inspire the squarest pegs in the audience to feel as if they might somehow shimmy into the coolest holes. (One may want to know Fela gets the audience up on its feet for a lesson in Nigerian hip action.) Jones’s gestural design is virtually nonstop, breathless and executed most memorably by a corps of eight women — Fela’s romantic entourage, apparently — dressed by Marina Draghici in what might be described as contemporary mock-tribal.

At center stage about 95 percent of the evening is the inexhaustible Ngaujah, who evokes Fela in all his charismatic, self-regarding, bravely outspoken, monomaniacal glory. (Not for nothing does he call the Lagos theater in which he performed The Shrine.) Jones presents Fela’s story in the form of a concert; the production’s conceit is that this is Fela’s last show in Nigeria in or about 1977, some months after thugs have murdered his publicly revered mother, Funmilayo (gorgeously throated Melanie Marshall).

“Fela!” is an account of how a hedonistic entertainer (Gandhi, he isn’t) becomes a nation’s political conscience. Ngaujah, wearing embroidered track suits and rakishly sporting a cigarette, a la his idol, Frank Sinatra, regales us with tales of his practical musical education, of how Afrobeat emerged out of his love of jazz and the rhythms of Cuban music. His activist bent, meanwhile, fostered by resentment of British co­lo­ni­al­ism — “What did we get in return?” he asks. “Gonorrhea and Jesus!” — is cemented in the United States, where he’s exposed to black feminism and nationalism.

“Let music be the weapon,” he commands us, as he stands astride Draghici’s set, its corrugated, multicolor walls adorned with masks and painted African images. “Our music must be all about the reality of Africa today.”

The evening’s music is Fela’s, with some additions by Johnson, Jordan McLean and Jim Lewis, the last collaborating on the musical’s book with Jones. Some of the lyrics are flashed on screens at the sides and back of the stage, and much of the score is blatant agitprop, but all of it functions, too, as an urgent, loose haiku of the streets. “Like Rats We Steal / Make a Hole / Oil Flows” go the words of one protest song. In one of many visually arresting sequences, a kind of live-action editorial cartoon, the actors march across the stage bearing dozens of tiny coffins, emblazoned with the names of individuals and ideals sacrificed by the dictatorship.

Bathed in beatific halos, Marshall’s Funmilayo appears in visions to Fela, for whom performing clearly is something of a spiritual necessity. Marshall is given her own impeccable solos, including during the mesmerizing “Rain”; the evening’s ostensible cliffhanger concerns whether the dead mother will give her blessing to Fela’s leaving the country for good and thus putting himself safely out of reach of Nigeria’s oppressive regime.

This plot device is more useful as an exemplar of Fela’s self-involvement than as a means of keeping us on the edge of our seats, for Fela’s ruminations get to feel unnecessarily protracted. To their credit, though, Jones and company use the luxurious length to show us Fela’s unpleasant side: his bullying of his cast, his degrading objectifying of women. At one point, Fela reveals that he’s written a movie called “Black President.” An open-ended question subtly presents itself: Might a President Kuti have been capable of his own sordid excesses?

Ngaujah’s nonstop dynamism keeps us intrigued about such questions and, thanks to the irresistibility of Fela’s music, enthralled most of the time, too.

Fela!

Music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones. Additional lyrics by Lewis; additional music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean. Directed and choreographed by Jones. Sets and costumes, Marina Draghici; lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Robert Kaplowitz; projections, Peter Nigrini; wigs, hair and makeup, Cookie Jordan; music direction, Aaron Johnson. With Paulette Ivory, Ismael Kouyate, Gelan Lambert, Rasaan-Elijah Green. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Oct. 9 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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