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Rachel Levin
Performance Reviews
Special Focus
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

Fela! - Afrobeat Shakes up Broadway

by Rachel Levin
August 4, 2010
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
230 West 49th Street
New York, NY 10036
When you buy a ticket to Fela!, the Broadway musical based on the life and music of Nigerian performer and politico Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, you're also buying a seat at The Shrine nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria. The first half of the show is primarily a recreation of one of the rousing concerts that took place at The Shrine in the late 1970s, when Fela honed his signature Afrobeat sound, belted lyrics that challenged the corrupt Nigerian government, and used the stage as a soapbox for his own rants, at turns humorous, caustic, and self-reflective.

It's an ingenious theatrical device to have the fictional Fela (played magnificently the night I attended by Kevin Mambo) break the fourth wall and welcome the audience as if to his private club. Audience members are encouraged to grab a cocktail (you can drink at your seat – unheard of at most Broadway shows), participate in lively call and response, and get up on their feet to dance. For those unfamiliar with Fela's music, this makes for a warm introduction, and it's nearly impossible not to get swept up in the impossibly funky beats and hip-quaking moves of "The Queens" – Fela's cadre of strong, gorgeous women dancers whose traditional African movements are drizzled with '70s pop influences á la James Brown.

The genius of Fela's music was always that it seduced listeners with the funk first and then, once they were hooked, mesmerized them with the message. Fela! the show works in much the same way. While the first act is mostly about the funk, the second act is all about the message. Those hoping for a feel-good finish or possibly a love story in the traditional Broadway sense may be alienated, but it's impossible to have a narrative about politics in postcolonial Africa and not introduce streaks of violence and catastrophe.

Fela's simple but powerful lyrics and the spiritual roots of his signature sound are explored more fully in the second half as the story moves from the club to Fela's Kalakuta compound, where he's under siege from a Nigerian military trying to stifle his political strivings (he aims to be president) by jailing him and torturing those he loves. After the riotous cacophony of sound in the show's first act, the silence that ensues in the second half in the wake of tragedy is powerfully felt. The dancing, too, dips into a deeper well as the sensual and aggressive movements from the first half give way to those grounded in the spirit world of the sacred Yoruba tribal traditions.

From a dance perspective, Fela! is a rare Broadway gem in that its choreography is organic to the narrative, as opposed to "dance numbers" that are set apart from the dialogue in the classic Broadway tradition. It has been said that dance is history written on the body, and in Fela! this is poignantly true, as the performing bodies of Fela and his cohorts are the sites of ancient spiritual striving, postcolonial political torture, and funk-era gyration all at once.

Read Robert Abrams' musings on Fela!
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