Here Comes the Black President

23 09 2008

By Derek Beres

It was a beautiful moment, one of those times when irony and timing and synchronicity all come together in the blink of an eye, and your only recourse is to shake your head and laugh. Thing is, director/choreographer Bill T. Jones and co-writer Jim Lewis started the script for Fela! in 2002, writing and editing it down over a period of six years, before its eventual launch at New York City’s 37 Arts. There’s no way they could have guessed, at the outset, how perfect and prescient the scene where Fela Kuti—played by the irrefutably gifted actor, Sahr Ngaujah—sits in front of the crowd and announces himself as the “Black President” was going to be. And yet so it was.

It’s the title Fela self-anointed himself with from his compound in Lagos, Nigeria, during the tumultuous political environment in the 1970s and ‘80s. He even made an attempt at putting himself on the national ballot, although removed by the powers-that-were. That was no surprise. Known worldwide as the man who invented Afrobeat, his life is well-documented: as an outspoken rebel who walked his talk, appearing in court over 200(!) times; as the man who married 27 women in one ceremony and, although not mentioned in the play, later divorced them all, apparently because marriage was “too confining”; as one of the most respected musicians of the 20th century, hands down.

In their incredible play, Jones and Lewis take one particular scene from the Fela archives and wrap his biography around it: the 1977 burning and near-massacre of his Kalakuta Compound by 1,000 armed guards, an incident which, among other things, resulted in the death of Fela’s politically driven mother, Funmilayo. Even after all this—his mother being thrown out of a second-floor window, the burning of his republic, the torture of his friends, queens (the name of his wives, who were also his dancers), and musicians—Fela continued undeterred for another two decades, before his death in 1997.

It’s hard to overstate this man’s musical importance, and this theatrical piece did a fine job at summating what was a tumultuous, brilliant life. Backed by members of Antibalas, the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band, with Ngaujah handling lead vocals, Fela! is part musical, part concert, part dance performance, part dramatic perfection. It is a rare stage feat, to pull off so many things so well, and if the powers-that-now-be in the theater world have any sense, Broadway will be imminent. Of course, we’re talking about a “creative” platform whose big achievement of late is producing a stage version of The Little Mermaid. A hard social and political gaze into the life of Fela Kuti might be a bit of a stretch for that crowd. And yet, this was also a year that saw the incredible, groundbreaking Passing Strange hit Broadway, so all hope is not lost.

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You Do Not Talk About Fight Club

17 09 2008
You Do Not Talk About Fight Club: I Am Jack’s Completely Unauthorized Essay Collection

by Read Mercer Schuchardt (Editor)
Benbella
September 2008, 224 pages, $14.95

By Derek Beres

It’s not surprising that while this is a book of essays contemplating Chuck Palahniuk’s runaway hit 1996 novel Fight Club, that the focus seems to be just as much, if not more, on the 1999 movie of the same name—the essays were compiled by a co-founder of Metaphilm, a blog dedicated to critiquing and waxing poetic over cinema. It also brings up the visual nature of American culture as a whole, and how we perceive the reality around us; essentially, how words are pictures too, and how the pictures that are painted will be different for all of us.

This knowledge would not be lost on Palahniuk, who also contributes a short though outstanding foreword to this collection. It is not the headiest piece of the bunch, but it is certainly the most heartfelt. He knows what the movie did for the book—a book that was already visual and visceral to begin with. His minimalist arrangements of words and mental images, coupled with his uncanny ability to pick out few scenes yet give them major significance, lends itself to both the big screen, as well as the fulfilling, if not dangerous duty of philosophy.

For the writers of this collection, subtitled I Am Jack’s Completely Unauthorized Essay Collection, take massive liberties with the text. Some of them work well and illuminate the text. Others read like the writer is merely trying to hear himself think on paper, connecting abstract dots along a graph that inevitably concludes as an image that no one can recognize or understand.

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The Slow Overturn of Democracy

5 09 2008

The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court
Frederick S. Lane
Beacon
June 2008, 288 pages, $24.95

Review by Derek Beres

Anyone unfamiliar with the marriage between politics and religion—more specifically to this review, the current plight of certain members of the church to make America a Christian nation, as denoted in Frederick Lane’s subtitle, The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court—need only to have watched the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency on Saturday, 16 August. Watching pastor Rick Warren posit the same questions to Barack Obama and John McCain and, more importantly, watching their responses and the crowd’s reactions, was a perfect primer for anyone ignorant of just how entwined the two remain.

Credit freelance journalist Lane for an exceptional, insightful work illuminating both the history of America’s civil courts, and for showing how their evolution has brought us to where we are today—a country, he suggests, in danger of losing much of what we have stood for in terms of democracy and civil rights due to an ideological mindset perpetuated by a fringe culture that has been gathering increasing prominence and influence in the political arena.

When Warren put forth the question regarding which justice each candidate would not have nominated for the Supreme Court, the messages embedded inside every page of The Court and The Cross were brought to light. Obama initially suggested he would not have nominated Clarence Thomas, and then admitted Justice Antonin Scalia was not high on his list, either. Warren then asked about John Roberts, which may have hinted at an agenda to put Obama in a bad light in evangelical eyes. This is an important point: appointed Chief Justice by George Bush when William Rehnquist died of thyroid cancer in 2005, Roberts never sat well with the Christian Right, who, as Lane points out again and again, has made it a point in influencing our political leaders to beef up the Supreme Court with judges willing to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Warren never asked McCain his feelings on Roberts, though, and here is why: McCain declares he would not have nominated Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter, and Stevens, four liberal members of the court. If any one of them should be replaced with a pro-life judge, it is feared that the possibility of Roe vs. Wade could be overturned—an issue McCain knows well, as he never tried to deny his stance, stating that birth starts at the moment of conception. To really show you how relevant a point this is to the Right, when asked another question by Warren, McCain returned to the bench, asking, “Are we going to get back to the importance of Supreme Court justices? When we speak of the issue of the rights of the unborn, we need to speak about judges.”

Read the full review on PopMatters.