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.

Read the full review on PopMatters

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