The first act of Fela! is an absorbing play; so is the second. The problem is, they exist side by side. The result is an evening that sweeps up the audience in a wave of exuberance, then dashes us to the rocks of brutal reality.
The performers are brilliant. Kevin Mambo is Rock Star exciting, shaking the title role like a terrier with a towel. With this two-time Emmy winner, there’s not a false note anywhere in his acting. The way he sings, the way he moves, the way he looks, all total perfection. Lillias White, as his mother Funmilayo, more than lives up to her son’s image of her as a goddess; she is a queen in presence and in voice. The musicians, the dancers, everyone on stage is true to the Afrobeat, and the house fairly crackles with energy.
This is all enticing to begin with. Why not just relax, have fun, go with it? But there is a nagging undercurrent that just won’t go away. The setting is a raucous nightclub in one of the most dangerous sections of Lagos, Nigeria, in the summer of 1978. While the country is now free of British colonial rule, the government has been taken over by generals and politicians who are rotten with corruption. In this land, there is no justice, no food, no jobs. This we are told by Fela, a self-proclaimed revolutionary, a man with a megahit record, and a harem master deluxe. Sometimes he sings, sometimes he lectures, sometimes he jokes. There is danger everywhere; Nigeria has gone from a place where everything worth anything disappears overseas: petroleum, diamonds, people; to a country where all protest is summarily repressed. We are assured that just being in Fela’s nightclub, “The Shrine,” is perilous.
Confession: I hate audience participation. I don’t want to la-la-la along with the performers. I don’t want to shout “yeah yeah.” I don’t want to be asked if I’ve been in jail. And I don’t want to be sitting next to the guy who raises his hand and answers “yes!” I don’t want to be beguiled into the action; I just want to watch the show from behind the comfort of the fourth wall.
Because once that wall is breached, I have to stop being just an audience member, and start thinking about the situation on stage. Why is Fela told by his mother that he mustn’t leave the country, that he must die if necessary to “save” Nigeria? For Pete’s sake, gather your wives—all of them—and the kids we never see, and get the hell out of Dodge.
While the women on stage are undeniably sensual and desirable, they are clearly nothing more than scantily clad, gyrating symbols of Fela’s lust and conquest. We in the audience know that AIDS is coming, the lion poised to pounce and devour Africa. A woman who is nothing but chattel is a defenseless lamb waiting to be slaughtered. If you really love your people, educate them. This is hard to do while smoking dope and partying nonstop. The only empowered women onstage are the aforementioned sainted mother, and Sandra (Saycon Sengbloh), who is introduced as a Black Power Westerner. She subsequently appears in a version of native cloth and quickly sinks into the ensemble. Why don’t we ever hear from her again? What does she think of her new life as part of the female entourage?
Forgive me, guys. This thinking at the theater is dangerous business.
And it leads us directly into Act Two, which is filled with torture, death, and murder. Somehow, we felt it coming all along, but it is still uncomfortable, and we feel that our emotions have been cruelly manipulated.
All praise must be given to director/writer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, who superbly weaves a spell that is nearly impossible to break. Wig, hair, and makeup designer Cookie Jordan is a creative genius. And costume designer Marina Draghici has completely captured the combination of hedonism and tribalism that reverberates throughout the production.
I wish I could have liked this musical more. There is so much about it that is beautiful and compelling. But there are just too many questions left unanswered, not the least of which is: How is this relevant to us today? What are we supposed to do with this information? What is fact and what fantasy? Because we already know that not everything that is presented as gospel is true. Contrary to what Fela informs us at the beginning of the show, there are no tigers roaming free in Africa.
Did Fela ever actually have a plan for healing bleeding Nigeria? Had he been elected President, would a man so obviously addicted to power have been able to resist misusing it?
At the end of the show, is the audience cheering for a stellar cast in a highly original production, or for the idealzed image of a hero who seems to have facile answers to deeply complex problems?
So hey, why not hang out for a couple of hours, sway to the drums, get swept along with the rhythm of the dance. Sorry; just can’t. You got me thinking.
Fela!, Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished cultural journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics, Dance Critics Association, and National Book Critics Circle. firstname.lastname@example.org. michalljeffers.com