There are two giants associated with Fela!, the 2009 musical reaching us now in a touring production that features the original Broadway lead. One, of course, is Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian musician who pioneered Afrobeat and then used it to incite an insanely courageous protest against his nation’s oil-fed tyrants. The other is Bill T. Jones, Fela!‘s coauthor, director, and choreographer. Having already enjoyed a long career in modern dance, Jones came late to theater. And yet the two musicals he’s helped create so far—this one and Spring Awakening—establish him as a Jerome Robbins for our times. In Spring Awakening Jones used dance to lay bare late-Habsburg repression and the psychic distortions it caused; here he employs the same medium to embody the same dynamic—but in the physical language of an entirely different culture. It’s breathtaking.
Fela! follows the title character from his wild youth through artistic, political, and religious awakenings to a moral power so terrifying to his enemies that in 1977 they attacked his commune with 1,000 soldiers who beat him nearly to death, raped and mutilated his wives, burned his residence, and killed his mother—feminist activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti—by throwing her out a window. Astonishingly, even that didn’t stop Fela: his response was to lay Funmilayo’s coffin before the Lagos barracks of strongman Olusegun Obasanjo.
As portrayed by the indefatigable Sahr Ngaujah (well, almost indefatigable—he alternates with Adesola Osakalumi), Fela is a weird, compelling cross between John Lennon, John Coltrane, Pan, and some messianic genius like Sabbatai Zevi. Funmilayo is nearly as vivid. Thanks to Melanie Marshall’s magnificent voice and Peter Nigrini’s stunning projections that channel both Maoist and Christian iconography, she comes across as nothing short of a saint.