The set (panels of corrugated tin) for Bill T. Jones and his collaborators’ new production spills out into the auditorium of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre (even as far as the exit doors), promising to break the boundaries between performance and viewer. As we enter, the ten-piece band, led by Aaron Johnson, is already rocking. Yes, there will be dancing in the aisles.
What the evening delivers is not quite so revolutionary, but entertaining nonetheless. This review of songs drawn from the work of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Nigerian musician and activist, is brought off with high energetic athleticism, heart and soul, and fiery politcal rage. The book for the musical, however, is inconsequential and choppy: Fela is haunted by the ghost of his mother Funmilayo, who apparently died in the course of a government raid on Fela’s compound. It is his mother, we can only conclude, who actually accomplished more towards reform in West Africa in the 1970s. Fela takes a spirit journey (admirably realized with fancy light effects, video projections, and lasers) to reconcile with her, and then the show’s over. (Alas, some of those lighting effects tend to blind us in row Q.)
Jones’s production doesn’t put a face on the corruption against which Fela (on this evening, the charismatically muscular Sahr Ngaujah) militates; there’s no dramatic arc to the work. As an audience member, one always feels vaguely manipulated when asked to stand and perform a bump-along of hip-shaking dance moves. And the jokey passage about crap and marijuana should be cut.
The unseen (but not unheard) star of this show is Stuart Bogie on tenor and percussion, who ghosts the wailing sax played by Fela.
(Disclosure: I saw this production thanks to the generosity of one of the technicians on the production staff.)
- Fela!, conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis, and Stephen Hendel, music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York