November 24, 2009
At the opening of Fela! at the Eugene O'Neil Theatre last night, I ran into Angelique Kidjo during intermission. Having been absolutely knocked out--on the verge of tears--during the first half, I told her, "Broadway will never be the same," to which she replied, "I hope not."
The preview performance I saw about a month ago was absolutely great. But the difference in energy level, tightness, timing, passion was palpable from the start last night. No doubt the buzz of opening night helped. On hand were celebrities: Harry Belafonte, Angelique, Spike Lee, David Byrne, Judith Jameson, Ben Stiller, Alecia Keyes, and of course the show's newest producer Jay-Z (Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have also just signed on as producers, but did not show). Coolest of all was the presence of members of the Kuti family, notably Fela's daughter Yeni Kuti who now has a major hand in running The New African Shrine in Lagos, and flew in for this event. (This photo shows Yeni and her daughter at the post-show dinner reception at Gotham Hall.)
Ben Brantley's rave review of Fela! in this morning's NYTimes points out that there has never been anything like this on Broadway, and that's surely true. You could see it in the crowd, a kaleidoscopic blend of Afrocentric hipsters, Broadway socialites, stuffed shirts and regular folks almost equally proportioned between white and black. The question on everybody's lips was, "Will folks from New Jersey come to this show?" After last night, I seriously believe they will. This show is such a thrilling experience, no matter where you start from. The "Breaking it Down" segment in Act 1 is the most compelling and lucid deconstruction of Afrobeat imaginable. It spans Yoruba drumming, highlife, jazz, Sinatra, and James Brown and makes it absolutely clear how all these things are parts of Afrobeat, and yet that Afrobeat can not be reduced to them--all in five mind-blowing minutes. The scene where Fela argues racial politics with his Black Power L.A. girlfriend Sandra Iszadore is also a great hook. Their playfully contentious, fast-paced exchange revisits the familiar racial arguments of the late 60s and 70s and lets you see them as never before--from the viewpoint of a savvy, rebellious African. It is funny, eye-opening and ingenious in its accessibility. Sahr Ngaujah in the character of Fela literally ushers you into another world, one that feels exciting, forbidden, sexy, and surreal, and he makes you feel at home there for a few enchanted hours. Who would not want that? (I look forward to returning to see the show with the other Fela, Kevin Mambo.)
Whether or not Jersey shows up to buy tickets, and however long Fela! lasts on Broadway, it is already a cultural landmark. Afropop Worldwide may well have been the first national radio show to play Fela's music in America. Back in the late 80s, Fela's arrival on Broadway could scarcely have been imagined. This achievement is a tribute to the creators of this show--Steve Hendel, Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis, the band Antibalas, an incredible cast, The Eugene O'Neil Theatre, and others--but most of all, it is a tribute to Fela himself. The man had flaws and wrinkles not addressed in this production, and they are a fit subject for another day--perhaps the Fela biopic film. Oh, yes! But as an artist, visionary, and self-possessed mad genius with the courage and certainty to change the course of his nation's history and of popular music worldwide, Fela deserves this celebration. And so does America. My bet is that Broadway will indeed never be the same.