African Disneyland? “Fela!” on Broadway, a Response to the New York Times
This is in response to Charles Isherwood’s article on the Broadway musical “Fela!” in the New York Times on Sunday, January 28, 2010. I took a special interest in his critical take on the show not only because I recently saw the show- which is set at Fela’s Lagos, Nigeria nightclub the Shrine- and not only because I have been a devotee of Fela Kuti’s music and life story for years, but also because in 2006 I had the unforgettable experience of traveling to Lagos, Nigeria with my band, Aphrodesia, where we played at the Shrine with Fela’s son, Femi.
Mr. Isherwood is to be commended for thinking so critically about the musical. Race is, as he notes in his opening paragraph, an incendiary topic, and those of us involved in any debate on it too often devolve into knee-jerk ‘reactionism,’ often fed by notions of political correctness and white guilt. Mr Isherwood’s thoughtful, lengthy critique in a major American newspaper should be taken by fans of afrobeat and of the musical as the highest compliment (he is also right to urge everyone- as I emphatically do as well- to go and see the show for themselves).
That said, Mr. Isherwood is wrong on the major themes of his article.
He’s right that “Fela!” the musical isn’t perfect. The plot is weak, and character development almost nonexistent. The plot could be accurately summarized as “Fela says he’s leaving Nigeria, then he changes his mind.” And although we are witness to the development of Fela’s life through flashbacks, there are no meaningful changes in the portrayals of the major characters through the passage of the show, as is often the case in Broadway productions.
But- and it’s a big but- that’s not the point. “Fela!” is instead a raucous, bombastic, thrilling and at times touching show that transports the audience to a specific time and place- Fela Kuti’s Lagos nightclub, The Shrine, in the late 1970’s. I am no Broadway musical expert, but I believe the show’s positioning of a radical figure like Fela as the hero, its use of Afrobeat, a previously little-known, stubbornly funky and uncompromising music, as the score, and its celebration of strikingly non-Broadway ideas of showmanship, such as African dance and the inclusion of the audience, is groundbreaking for the Great White Way. In essence, “Fela!” brings a new theatrical and musical tradition to Broadway, and Mr. Isherwood mistakenly judges it by his own standard.
One of Mr. Isherwood’s major complaints, for example, is with the look of the show. In crafting a musical that looks (and sounds, thanks to the expert recreation of Fela’s music by a band that includes members of Antibalas) like Fela’s Shrine, the creators of “Fela!” have built a set that Mr Isherwood dismisses as an “African Disneyland.” Yet I found the set design to be one of the most transporting and authentic elements of the show. I should point out that the Shrine I visited and played with Aphrodesia was not the Shrine of the musical- that Shrine was bulldozed by the Nigerian government soon after Fela’s death in 1997. Rather, the Shrine we experienced was Fela’s son Femi’s recreation of his father’s nightclub, in a different neighborhood of Lagos, which he calls “The New Afrika Shrine.” But although the building is different (much bigger, and, we were told by more than one Nigerian, with a much better sound system), by all accounts the vibe and feel of the place is very much the same. And so I can only assume that the set of “Fela!”, looking much like the Shrine I saw, nails the look of the original Shrine. Mr. Isherwood writes that the set is covered in corrugated metal and “African gee-gaws.” Yet I wonder if he is familiar with the clash of cultures that make up the world of Lagos and much of West Africa, where African religious and cultural icons mesh with appropriations of Christian symbols and elements of western culture. Walk down the street in Lagos or Accra and you will find shacks housing businesses with names like “God is Great Beauty Salon” and “He Is Arisen Electrical Shop;” women in traditional cloth dress sell bags of water next to men in business suits talking on their cell phones. It is this world that gave birth to the Shrine, and so while “Fela!”’s set design may have looked contrived to Mr. Isherwood, to me it looked strikingly authentic. At the New Afrika Shrine the slapdash construction of corrugated metal was covered with objects like a giant map of the world with Africa colored in red and a giant slogan that read ‘Movement Against Second Slavery;’ one corner held a religious shrine to Fela. I can only assume the objects that decorated the walls of the original Shrine held a similar significance. An African Disneyland? No, Mr. Isherwood, that musical was named “The Lion King.” This is simply Africa.
Another of Mr. Isherwood’s complaints is that in walking and dancing among the audience the performers have broken the “Fourth Wall” that normally places performers on stage and audience members in the seats. I’m not enough of an expert on theater to say if this sacred separation of performer and audience is a European construct; I can say though, that the ‘call and response’ format of much West African music- so integral to Fela’s music and deeply influential in much of today’s pop music as well- is rooted in the involvement of everyone present. A singer ‘calls’ a phrase or sentence, the ‘response’ comes from everyone. Music in West Africa often serves a much more universal function than it unfortunately does here in America, where we are bombarded with background music nearly every minute of our day. As I found while I was there, there are songs to telegraph the news from the next village, there are songs for cooking fish without too much salt, and, as Fela proved, there are songs for calling your government a bunch of thieving oligarchs. All of these songs are meant to include the listener in a way that I would guess stands out from Mr. Isherwood’s previous Broadway experience. It is to this tradition that the practice of sending the dancers and performers among the audience, and of asking the audience to sing, and to dance, as “Fela!” does, belongs.
I think Mr. Isherwood’s critique reveals more about himself, and by extension white American attitudes towards race and Africa, than he does about the show. He accuses the show of ‘fetishizing’ the exotic with flashy song and dance, and yet I’d guess there’s nothing exotic about the song and dance in the show to most West Africans, and certainly not to the ones in the mileu portrayed in “Fela!” In tagging the music and dance in the show as belonging to a ‘spectacle of African culture’ that he says tilts too closely towards ‘minstrelsy,’ Mr. Isherwood makes the mistake he accuses the show of making- he assumes that the ‘ecstatic’ music and dance in the show is somehow beneath the dignity of these characters (it reminds me of the argument that music should be taught in schools because it helps kids with math, to which my response has always been, ‘Really? Maybe we should teach math because it helps kids with music’). I think the music and dance in the show is portrayed, accurately, not as light entertainment in service of some higher goal, but as that higher goal itself. And not incidentally, the music and dance (including the beautiful Nigerian women dancing suggestively all night long) portrayed in the show is pretty damn close to the Shrine as I remember it.
Mr. Isherwood seems to believe the emphasis on music and dance is exploitative, but I’d bet Mr. Ishwerwood dinner at Sardi’s that not a single one of the approximately 150 million-plus Nigerians, given the chance to come to Broadway and see the show, would leave the theater feeling exploited. I bet they’d feel proud that this part of their culture and history was being so lovingly crafted and performed in front of such a mainstream American audience every night. I am reminded of my own experience in West Africa. We were a white band, playing African music, in Africa. Before we left we were bombarded with well-meaning concerns from friends about whether the Africans we met would be insulted by what we were doing, whether they would see us as exploiting their culture. But our experience once in Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria was the opposite- people were almost universally thrilled that we were playing their style of music, that we had taken the time to learn it and that we obviously loved it so much we had traveled all the way to Africa to play it and learn more. The questions of authenticity, exploitation and cultural stereotyping and racism that had confronted us faded away as we met Africans who were- rightly- proud that their music and culture was strong enough to make such an impact on people on the other side of the world. We encountered a much more nuanced (and refreshingly blunt) view of race as well- of course, there is black and white, but there are many shades of each. For me, Mr. Isherwood’s critique represents these type of questions- well-meaning, but naïve as to what really constitutes the difference between exploitation and respectful tribute.
Mr. Isherwood says it “seems odd that the only character other than Fela Kuti who has any sustained dialogue is an American.” Actually, it’s not odd: it’s appropriate. Fela’s music was as American as it was African- a synthesis of James Brown funk, American jazz and African Rhythms. And that “brash woman” whom Mr. Isherwood declines to name was Sandra Izadore, who, meeting Fela when he lived in Los Angeles in 1969, introduced him to the politics of the American Black Power movement and the Black Panthers, forever changing his life, music and politics. Far from being the “festive window dressing” Mr. Isherwood accuses the women of Fela of being portrayed as, Ms. Izadore comes across as strong and independent in the musical. Fela is entranced by her, he woos her simplistically, and receives a stack of Black Power literature in return (this portrayal of Ms. Izadore seems correct- I’ve had the priveledge of speaking to her by phone once; she still lives and works in LA, working with community organizations and occaissionally producing afrobeat-themed concerts with local bands like the excellent Afrobeat Down).
I will leave for elsewhere a discussion of Fela’s problematic attitudes towards women (seek out Nkiru Nzegwu’s essay on this in the excellent collection of scholarly articles about Fela, Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway). But the sexuality that Mr. Isherwood seems to find gratuitous and degrading from Fela’s backup dancers and wives in the show (and it was clear to me that they were his wives in the show, perhaps Mr. Isherwood went to the bathroom during the scene when he marries them?) is an accurate portrayal of Fela and his son Femi’s show. The sexuality from the dancers is undeniable; it’s also proud, and I believe here again Mr. Isherwood is imposing his own views and standards uneccesarily.
Mr. Isherwood discounts the political context given in the show by saying that “you learn more about the sociopolitical situation by reading the newspaper headlines in the video projections on the set.” Actually, Nigerian soldiers’ raid on his compound and the murdering of his mother by them is the main dramatic episode in the show. This event- a reference to the Kalakuta Raid of February 18, 1977- is put in its proper context as a reaction to Fela’s outspoken criticism of the government’s corruption. The episode when Fela was jailed for marijuana possession, but released after several days for lack of evidence (the creative details of which make for one of the more entertaining passages in the show, and which yielded his classic song, “Expensive Shit”), appropriately portrays a government furious at his dissent, yet fearful of confronting his enormous popularity. Yes, there are political elements left out- viewers will have to dig elsewhere to learn about the bloody Biafran War of 1967-70, a civil war estimated to have killed as many as three million people and which shaped the political culture of the Nigeria inhabited by Fela (and perhaps even more importantly, by his politically outspoken mother, too). Absent too is talk to the ethnic tensions within Nigeria between the Igbo and other groups like Fela’s Yoruba, which contributed to that war and were exacerbated by Britain’s colonial administration, itself touched on but not deeply examined in the show.
But a full revealing of these political complexities would turn the show into more of a lecture and less of an entertainment. And that’s what Mr. Isherwood misses in his critique- this is a show, and deservedly so. Fela knew that his politics had to be coupled with his music to gain traction with the population; likewise, the musical “Fela!” would be sorely off-base if it left out the sensual side of its main character.
The show is far from perfect- for that, the plot and narrative would have to match Bill T. Jones’ breathtaking choreography and the irresistible Antibalas-fueled live soundtrack. But what flaws it has do not stem from exploitation or racist assumptions about Africans and African culture.