I saw Fela! off-Broadway last year, and wrote about it here. This past weekend, I took my partner to see the Broadway production (produced by Shawn Carter and the Pinkett-Smiths). It was still as amazing as I remembered and even more so with the additional space the Eugene O’Neill Theatre made available for the setting.
Felicia Lee spotlights the actresses that play 9 of Fela’s 27 queens in this week’s NYT. The actresses, who have researched the lives of Fela’s wives, complicate any easy readings of the women’s unconventional relationship with the musician and activist. The queens do not speak in the musical though their individualized expressions and mannerisms set one apart from another. Suggesting that the women in Fela’s life were comrades as well as lovers, Lee reports:
“One thousand soldiers swarmed Kalakuta, beating Fela and raping and viciously abusing some of the women — an episode depicted vividly onstage. Fela’s 77-year-old mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, herself a political counterforce to Nigeria’s authoritarian regime, died the following year from injuries suffered after the soldiers threw her out a window.”
Sam Baldwin’s review of Fela’s authorized biography, Carlos Moore’s Fela: This Bitch of a Life sheds additional light on the relationship between Fela and his wives. Baldwin writes that “sexism” is the strongest statement made by Moore’s biography of Kuti, “Well, sexism and police brutality.” Judging from Baldwin’s review, the wives do not speak much in the bio either, but they do admit that their beloved slaps them around on occasion.
How does a brilliant musician, a fierce opponent of neocolonial corruption, and son of an outspoken feminist fail to interrogate his own sexism and homophobia? And how do we as black feminists negotiate such an uneven legacy?
As Kai Wright’s review of the play points out, “if Jones boldly presents Fela the legend, he plainly avoids Fela the man.”
Jones clearly was going for a “mythic” portrayal of the man Fela, though the director does avoid presenting the complicated figure as a saint or a one-sided hero. Perhaps a flawed hero who dies tragically of AIDS-related complications is not the stuff of musicals. Luckily the political sway of a musical genius is.