A longtime fan of Fela Kuti’s music, I was so excited to learn that Tony Award winning choreographer Bill T. Jones was choreographing a new musical based on Kuti’s life. I ignored all the reviews, even this positive one by The Times, and went to 37 Arts not knowing what to expect. Jones’s production was even better than I’d hoped. Sahr Ngaujah reanimated Fela as the sounds of Antibalas filled the entire theatre and made it impossible to sit still. This was not a show where the wall between audience and performers held firm. Call and response was in full effect.
In addition to shedding more light on Fela’s political activism, Jones’s production accentuated the close relationship Fela maintained with his mother Fumilayo (played by Abena Koomson), who was a political force for women’s rights. In life and in death, Fumilayo shaped her son’s lyrical critiques of the corrupt Nigerian government and the multinational corporations that aimed to suck Nigeria’s resources dry.
For much of the show, a translucent Funmilayo gazes down on her son from a ladder perched in the corner of the stage. And as someone who does work on female embodiment, and the way it functions in the service of an emergent male consciousness, I was immediately struck by this kind of framing. I went into the play wondering how Jones would approach the sexual and gender issues surrounding Fela’s memory. Calling Fela a ladies man is an understatement. At one point he had 27 wives and he died from AIDS-related complications. How do you fit that narrative into a musical?
Jones subtly and artfully integrates Fela’s marriages and risky sex practices in Ngaujah‘s interactions with the “queens,” dancers turned wives whose hip sways, cigarette lighting, and caresses impart a portentious feeling.
Jones does not end the production with Fela’s death however but with a climactic tribute to Funmilayo, who was thrown from a second story window when soldiers raided Fela’s compound and died from injuries incurred in that assault. Underscoring the potent aspects of Fela’s Yoruba culture, Jones portrays Fela’s crossing into the ancestral world to seek advice and direction from his mother. The journey fortifies him to continue his struggle through his music and his actions.