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Fela! at Oriental Theatre | Theater review

The stagecraft is striking but the storytelling’s facile in Bill T. Jones’s Afrobeat spectacle.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton
Saur Ngaujah and company in Fela!

Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti straddled many worlds: His music combined elements of jazz, big band and funk with traditional African sounds, while Kuti himself drew lines connecting his native Nigeria with North America, and pop culture with politics. Bill T. Jones’s biographical spectacle wants to embrace that multifaceted eclecticism. While Fela! serves as a terrific introduction to Kuti’s music and features a blistering central performance from Saur Ngaujah as Fela, the narrative provided by Jones and cowriter Jim Lewis speeds through a bullet-pointed assessment of Kuti’s achievements and motivations.

The show opens on a standard presentational setup: We’re at the Shrine, Kuti’s Lagos nightclub, where he tells us tonight’s performance will be his last. His mother, activist Funmilayo Kuti, is dead, and harassment by the corrupt military forces he’s long fought has finally persuaded Fela to leave Nigeria.

What begins with the loose energy of a concert gradually turns into a recounting of Fela’s life story, while Funmilayo starts to appear to him in visions. After intermission, things get really trippy. Jones abandons the Shrine conceit almost entirely, shifting to representational vignettes about Kuti’s political activism, the 1978 attack on his compound by 1,000 soldiers and a truly unheralded sequence featuring Yoruba deities painted in fluorescents and bathed in black light, depicting Fela’s spiritual journey to ask his mother’s blessing to leave Nigeria behind. While the stagecraft is impressive, the storytelling is facile. Still, the rendering of Kuti’s music by onstage band Antibalas and Ngaujah’s commanding, electromagnetic presence make Fela! a worthy endeavor.

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