A Theatrical Tribute to Fela Kuti
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Halfway through previews of his rousing, dance-filled musical, “Fela!” which opens September 4 for a two-and-a-half-week run, the choreographer Bill T. Jones, 56, was still fine-tuning sequences every afternoon. He has won every possible accolade as a choreographer in concert dance and a Tony Award for his work in the hit Broadway musical, “Spring Awakening.” But “Fela!,” which is based on the life of the great Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died in 1997 at age 58, marks the first time Mr. Jones has conceived, directed, and choreographed a musical theater production.
“I’d been thinking about what I wanted to do in terms of the performing arts,” Mr. Jones said after a rehearsal, sipping an espresso and intermittently offering suggestions to assistants on costuming, lighting, and songs. “I wanted to extend myself somehow in the grand tradition of Agnes de Mille and Jerry Robbins. What do choreographers like myself do who want to go deeper in our field or even sideways? Musical theater seems to be the answer.”
But it took years for him to find a venture that fully captured his imagination. He started by considering classic Nigerian stories and plays by Brecht and Euripides. Not until Mr. Jones’s lawyer, Bob Levine, heard of his quest did he find the right match in producer Stephen Hendel, another of Mr. Levine’s clients. A world-music enthusiast, Mr. Hendel had bought the rights to Kuti’s discography in the hopes of developing a project about him. Thrilled to find one another, the two began working with the theater writer Jim Lewis on the musical seven years ago, even before Mr. Jones collaborated on “The Seven,” an off-Broadway hip-hop adaptation of Aeschylus’s “Seven Against Thebes.”
At first, they considered doing something avant-garde in a series of unconnected scenes, with titles such as “Showman” and “Black President” (Kuti planned to run for president of Nigeria). But after one workshop, Mr. Jones said, “It became clear if this was going to have a life other than the dance world I come from, I would have to understand the conventions of the commercial stage and tell a story. I had to figure out whom I wanted to talk to, and I realized it was a theatergoing person. I don’t get many African-Americans, people of my background, in audiences for my dance performances. In our previews, I’m already finding that mix, and it makes me feel less isolated, less cynical.”
Mr. Jones, Mr. Lewis, and Mr. Hendel gave themselves a huge challenge in bringing Kuti’s life to the stage. The son of leading Nigerian intellectuals and activists, Kuti began playing and composing music at an early age, growing increasingly political after studying music in London and his introduction to the writings of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers on visit to America in the ’60s. He was soon combining various styles, such as American jazz, funk, R&B, African High-Life, and African chants, an amalgam that came to be known as the worldwide craze Afrobeat. “He left a catalog that is as rich as Duke Ellington’s,” Mr. Hendel said. “He dealt with local issues that are universal and as relevant today. I believe he’s a major composer of the 20th century.”
Rather than simply thrive on his commercial success, Kuti chose to stay in Nigeria and protest the corrupt government, establishing a commune with his wives and musicians in a nightclub that he dubbed the Akrika Shine, which is wonderfully re-created for the show. He endured constant harassment, beatings, and imprisonment but never abandoned his music. “Our biggest test,” Mr. Jones said, “was not to imitate him but to evoke him.”
Mr. Jones found his Kuti in Sahr Ngaujah. Originally from Sierra Leone, Mr. Ngaujah has performed, directed, and written plays in Germany and the Netherlands. “Fela impressed me from a very young age, so to experience his spirit this way is a profound experience,” he said. “Bill is fascinating to work with and his process is very rigorous. He’s teaching me how to communicate through gesture. He gives all kinds of information verbally but what makes him different from other directors is his deep understanding of how much one can convey physically.”
Certainly Mr. Jones’s fantastically rhythmic and explosive dances go a long way to moving the action, with the dancers constantly interacting with each other and the band Antibalas, which plays onstage. “We’re communicating all night long, with Sahr and the rest of the cast,” the musical director and conductor, Aaron Johnson, said. “We feel part of the story.”
Mr. Jones gracefully leaped onto the stage of 37 Arts theater during a recent rehearsal, saying in his resonant baritone, “In Africa, we are always losing things — our tempers, our people, our minds.” Studying Mr. Jones carefully, Mr. Ngaujah tried to see what he wanted him to alter in his portrayal. “But I thought I should show the transition from lashing out at friends to talking to the audience,” Mr. Ngaujah said.
“I don’t want to see it,” Mr. Jones explained, demonstrating by turning abruptly. “You have to change immediately from fury to offering an eloquent explanation of the ugly state of affairs in your country.” Mulling over his suggestion, Mr. Ngaujah went through the scene on his own as Mr. Jones gave his attention to another cast member, pressed for time in the rehearsal.
Ecstatic theatergoers often surround Mr. Jones after a performance. One night a woman came up to him full of compliments and asked if she would see something similar if she attended his company’s upcoming, 25th-anniversary engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September. “I told her, ‘No, it will be more existential,'” he said, laughing. “I pulled that one out of a hat. Actually, I think Fela — with all his complexity and contradictions — is pretty existential. In fact, he scares me to death but I also feel a strange kind of solace in him. He was the real thing — a deeply committed artist, with a strong agenda. I don’t share his agenda, but I do want to know that it’s possible to be creative and compassionate and also be determined to communicate.” As if Mr. Jones had not been doing that himself throughout his long and illustrious career.