Friday, July 13, 2012
This is now FELA!'s fourth year on Broadway but I hadn't seen the show until earlier this week. The energy of the show is simply electrifying and the 2-1/2 hours running time passes almost too quickly. This isn't your 'traditional' Broadway play where there is a rigid separation between the cast and the audience as Sahr Ngaujah (who plays Fela) set the tone for the evening by taking the stage to a driving afrobeat and asking the audience to help with some call and response vocals (say "yeah yeah") and Ngaujah followed this by regularly engaging with the audience throughout the course of the show.
The show starts at Fela's 1978 farewell concert at the Shrine nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria. The dance floor is an exploding mixture of color, sound and movement and, over the course of the musical, Ngaujah gets the audience up on their feet as well. The music and the rhythms are addictive and require the listener to get beyond the thrusting beats to hear Fela's political and government baiting lyrics.
The storyline shifts between the past and the present as Fela is still mentally and physically recovering from a government raid on his compound that resulted in the brutal death of his mother and he is seeking guidance from his mother (in the afterlife) whether she will bless his leaving Nigeria. According to Wikipedia: "In 1977, Fela and the Afrika '70 released the album Zombie, a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against [Fela's commune], during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela's studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela claimed that he would have been killed had it not been for the intervention of a commanding officer as he was being beaten. Fela's response to the attack was to deliver his mother's coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo's residence, and to write two songs, "Coffin for Head of State" and "Unknown Soldier", referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier."
Fela's life story comes out in short narratives between the song and the dance and he seems equally proud of his 200 arrests and his continual fight against the government as he is of his "bomber spliff". This is a musical tour de force and words really don't do full justice to the experience of being part of the audience and feeling the power and the passion of the music. Fela's music proves that music can be just as powerful a weapon as the soldiers' armaments.
FELA! is playing at the Al Hirschfield Theatre (302 West 45th Street, Times Square) through August 4th. As it was a full house when I saw the show last Wednesday, I would assume that tickets are going quickly.
FELA! on Broadway