'Fela!' Canon Theatre, Toronto ON October 25
Published Oct 26, 2011The adaptation of Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti's life story to the stage scores multiple times in all the areas it should: performance, staging and especially music. Sahr Ngaujah is magnetic and utterly believable in the only real role in the play, which ultimately causes the production to fall a little short in generating deep dramatic resonance.
You will have a great time watching (and participating in) this play. Fela's volcanic, sarcastic presence as a storyteller and as a musician is an overwhelming force throughout and absolutely enlivens the complex narrative structure. During the first act, exposition flies fast and furiously. Ngaujah breaks down the components of Afrobeat with an extended, rapid-fire music lesson and family history set to a funky, jazzy, Afro-Cuban groove provided by the onstage band (played by Antibalas in the original production, but still great here). Since Fela was renowned for his compelling harangues, this device didn't feel too talky. Of course, the propulsive dancing and Tony Award-winning costumes more than kept the audience riveted.
Fela is introduced as a headstrong young man born into a powerful family in Nigeria. His mother Funmilayo is a formidable woman, a fierce anti-colonialist and nation builder; a central tension of the play is that behind all his bluster, Fela timorously seeks her blessing. From the outset, where we are placed in Fela's Shrine club in his self-styled Kalakuta Republic on the evening of its final show, we already know she's dead as she presides over the show, with her bathed in ghostly light and singing in operatic tones in contrast with Afrobeat's funk. What could be another hackneyed device again makes sense within the cultural context of the play. The belief that "ancestors walk among us" is illustrated by international icons of black achievement past and present decorating the corrugated zinc sheeting-style set.
Fela travels to the U.S. and encounters Sandra Isadore's whirlwind of Black Power politics (and the only other performer with a speaking role), which leads to a culture clash of the most creative kind: she looks to Africa for inspiration, he finds inspiration in black American literature, which confirms the anti-colonial attitudes his mother had preached. Fired by this political awakening, he returns to Nigeria with Afrobeat fully formed.
Once Fela's political and musical motivations are in place, neither Sandra as the American foil nor Funmilayo as the Nigerian conscience are truly effective dramatic counterweights. Fela's fame and notoriety increases as projections of newspaper headlines on the set display his clashes with authorities. At this point, song placement becomes an important part of the narrative. "Expensive Shit" details the story of how police tried and failed to find evidence of his marijuana possession by analyzing his feces while Fela was in lockup. "Water No Get Enemy," one of Fela's most famous tunes, speaks of the positive, negative and always necessary roles that water plays in life. By the time the military-mocking "Zombie" hits with great force, you are fully swept up in Fela's "Movement of the People." Ngaujah gets shirtless and fabulous, while his many wives shake and strut with all their collective might.
Nigerian authorities are described as incensed at this mockery and attack the Shrine. The denouement is initially the most horrifying and effective moment of the play, but as the extended sequence evolves it has a whiff of Blanche Dubois's descent into madness in the Simpsons' "Streetcar!" episode. Nevertheless, the play wraps up on an unsurprising but highly effective note set to "Coffin for Head of State."
Little touches shine. Props and projections silently illustrate the parallels between Fela's struggles and contemporary African issues. Afrobeat nerds are served: the most minute details of popular jazz musicians in London in the '60s get a mention but don't detract from the flow. Artful subtitles underline selected important lyrics that might otherwise have come across as unclear (to some) in Fela's Pidgin English delivery. Improvisatory moments worked well in establishing Fela as more than just an unapproachable icon. The tricky, goddess-like character of Funmilayo is difficult to pull off successfully but Melanie Marshall gets the tone exactly right with regal performances of much of the show's original material and believable though limited interaction with Fela.
The mix of non-linear narrative and musical storytelling sidesteps the emotionally manipulative moments that we expect from a Broadway musical. This is an exciting theatrical experience that doesn't dumb its topics down, though Fela's sexist attitudes are not deeply explored. Then again, to do so might have seemed culturally revisionist and that's one of the biggest things this play strives to avoid.
Ngaujah delivers a bravura performance in this more or less one-man show. That said, if only the supporting cast had a bit more presence in the production perhaps Fela! might be even more compelling. Still, Fela! opens up exciting new possibilities for complex, realistic and contemporary African issues and characters on international stages.