A Review by Sojourner Ahebee
In my ninth grade literature classroom is a poster of Fela, who commands the room even in the mighty company of Emily Dickinson and Toni Morrison. My mom has a postcard of Fela on our refrigerator, displayed between the Dali Lama and William H. Johnson smoking his pipe. It is a card of Fela posing with an entourage of striking women and of him looking quite naughty. His gaze, jumping right through the poster and the postcard, is captivating, even if you have no idea who he is. Well, I really have a better idea, now!
This past Sunday afternoon, I had the awesome opportunity to go to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and see a live-delay simulcast of the musical Fela! from London. The National Theatre, in London, now broadcasts live many of its productions around the world to participating cinemas. Though Fela!, the Tony award-winning musical, recently closed its Broadway run, it lives on in London.
I was prepared to dislike Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. As an African girl, from Cote d’Ivoire, I never liked that postcard on the refrigerator of Fela and the nearly naked women surrounding him, barely clothed and pushing through all kinds of stereotypes I’ve been trying to destroy. But FELA!, this musical, was phenomenal in showing the very complex life of Fela and doing it with his music, with Bill T. Jones’ choreography and direction and a cast that won me over and made me challenge my own insecurities. And the actor who played Fela- Sahr Ngaujah- so humanized him and made you really care about Fela, despite his flaws. Mr. Bill T. Jones, in an interview during intermission, described Fela best- a kind of sacred monster who you can’t resist loving.
Fela was a Nigerian musician and political activist who challenged his country’s corrupt governments. He was from a very privileged background. His mother, who you will fall in love with in the musical, was a feminist and political activist in her own right and who was viciously killed by the Nigerian military because of Fela’s music and how he used it as his platform to criticize the Nigerian government. Fela’s father was a pastor, he had two brothers who were doctors and his cousin is Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and who I met a couple of years ago at Bryn Mawr College.
Fela! , the musical, is a must, must see. This is what I now know firsthand is a theatrical experience! The music, the beautiful and powerful women and men dancers, the band-those horns and drums , the replica of Fela’ nightclub, the Shrine, all help to tell the story of man whose example of activism should be shared. I so appreciated how this production communicated the major influences in Fela’s life-his mother, his culture, other African cultures, his time in the United States and his relationship with an African-American woman and her political and intellectual influence on him. And all this is communicated in the most intoxicating exchange-because you are a part of this experience-which you will not forget.
As an African-American-an Ivoirian father and an American mother-I was inspired by the example of Africans and African-Americans playing such a key role together to present Fela’s story. Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith were the major producers of this musical.
You have the opportunity to give yourself a treat and a piece of real, mesmerizing history. You can see Fela! only tomorrow, Wednesday,7:00 p.m. at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Click on the link for all the details. Go see it.
Also click on link below to read a post I did last year about the environmental devastation Nigeria has been experiencing for years due to big oil companies.