I knew very little about Fela Anikulapo Kuti, until Wednesday. All I knew, was that he was a pioneer of Afro-beat music. End of.
It was with literally no trepidation that I agreed to see Fela! Part of the National Theatre’s NT Live program, live streamed into Covent Garden Odeon, I love a good show. The show was streamed to 100 cinema’s in the UK, plus further venues across Europe, North America and Australasia.
Phèdre felt like much more of an event, there was a build-up before the show, with stage staff and the director describing what was about to happen, and how new and revolutionary it was, there was a real sense of excitement. Two years and several productions later, that build-up and sense of occasion is gone, Fela! felt very much like walking in to watch a regular film.
Fela! lulled you in… as we entered the auditorium, the lights were down, and on screen was a jazz band, trumpets and trombones glowing gold on ‘stage’. It started gently, the audience unsure if the play ‘proper’ was afoot, until our Main Man addressed the audience. One of my favourite lines, with reference to the British occupation of Nigeria, was that all the British left them with was: ‘Jesus, and Gonorrhea’.
It was sweet and touching as ‘Fela’ set the scene, and gave the background to his musical influences, and how he strove not to be influenced by any of them. The vision of his mother, now passed, would sing from a picture on the wall, which highlighted just how beautifully The National had been decorated, hanging reams of lights, pointers and reminders to the importance of; family, heritage and ancestors. Fela, played by Sahr Ngaujah was captivating, having never seen footage of the real-deal, he was convincing.
There was a slightly nauseating ‘enforced jollity’ point, when ‘Fela’ insisted the crowd at The National stand-up and dance ‘the clock’, hip-thrusting in a circular, gyratory fashion, luckily (or unluckily) we in the cinema didn’t feel obliged to join in, but it was like looking-in on (slightly mortifying) dad-dancing, watching the audience at The National, swivel their hips, embarrassed.
The first half was strewn with singing and (amazing) dancing, the singing might have gone on a bit too long, the dancing was out of the world. It was light-hearted, but touching, as it described Fela’s education in the UK, his return to Nigeria and migration to the USA, where he met his love Sandra Izsadore (played by, the beautifully voiced, Paulette Ivory) who involved him in the Black Power movement in the US. The Black Power element was handled gently, somehow didn’t really touch the surface.
Fela, brimming with new ideals and ambitions, learned in the US, he took us into the second half.
…which was a far darker affair.
He introduces us to his nine wives, or ‘Queens’ (though I understand he had 27), and we trace the raid of his commune. And the mistreatment of his women-folk and death of his mother, thrown from a window – by the authorities, during the raid.
In an impeccable voodooesque sequence, he contacts his dead mother, which is appropriately disconcerting and dreamlike. But by that time, my brain had ever-so-slightly disengaged.
This play is like a great big, multicoloured, punch in the face, it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s riddled with references to recreational drug-use (which to be fair is a bit dull), polygamy, and arrests, it’s a bit gimmicky, it has the essence of watered-down African culture, in a (some would say patronising) effort to broaden its audience base. All this aside: it is moving, joyous, desperately sad, thought-provoking, carnival of a play, and Ngaujah’s, Fela is a lithe, likeable hero.
It’s not perfect, but it’s one of those plays I’ll remember, and I had a bluddy good time.