The Transformative Power of Fela!
During a performance of Fela! in Los Angeles, a 75-year-old woman got so caught up in the show that she jumped onstage and danced with the ensemble. She later sent an e-mail to the cast that was forwarded to producer Stephen Hendel. It read, in part: “I am the elderly lady with her white cane who literally threw caution to the wind when I felt compelled to join you onstage in that ocean of love you created. Thank you my brothers and sisters for allowing me to be in that sacred space with you, if only for that moment. I have been in stage four of breast cancer and I felt so revitalized and healed by what you gave me. I’m sure my life has been prolonged.“
That a musical based on the extraordinary life and work of Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-1997) inspires such passion and ecstasy comes as no surprise to Hendel, whose life was transformed when he heard Kuti’s Afrobeat music for the first time in 2000. "I read the liner notes that explained the songs and gave a description of who Kuti was, and I was very moved. I listened to more music and read a few books, and kept thinking about creating a theatre piece about him.”
His lawyer not only helped Hendel get the rights that enabled him to proceed, but introduced him to Bill T. Jones, who would go on to direct the show, co-write the book with Jim Lewis, and win the 2010 Tony Award for Best Choreography. “When I met Bill, I thought, ‘He’s born to do this,’” says Hendel. “He’s African-American. He’s got a huge social conscience. He's political. The themes and the issues that Fela had were themes and issues that Bill dealt with: 'What’s the role of art in culture? What’s the role of art in political statements and social justice? What’s the role of a black man in society? What’s the role of an artist in society?’”
Fela! is a joyous celebration of the artist, an explosion of music and dance that critic John Simon called “a supreme lesson in living.” Fela used his music to fearlessly attack the injustices perpetrated by Nigeria’s successive military regimes, which resulted in jail and beatings. “One of the things that drew me to him was, 'What kind of person stays in Nigeria, where he’s been beaten 200 times and gets put in solitary confinement for months at a time?’” says Hendel. “He could have left at any time but he man had a monumental commitment to standing up for human dignity and using his art to do it.”
Hendel calls Fela! “the great achievement of my life,” but there have been lows amidst the highs. The Broadway run ended after a disappointed 463 performances, but the show continued to have a life. The production when to Nigeria – “magical,” says Hendel – and London. There’s now a national tour, which stops this month in Philadelphia and Chicago. But there’s also been resistance from presenters around the country who believe their audiences will not come.
“This is a universal story of being committed, of using God-given talent to stand up and fight for freedom and dignity,” says Hendel. “And yet when you have an all-black cast, people say, 'This is a black show.’ It’s not a black show. It’s a human show based on a historical figure who happened to be Nigerian. The reality is that if you open your mind and heart to it, and you’re not a racist, we have a show that will be transformative.”
(Sahr Ngaujah and Paulette Ivory - photo by Tristram Kenton)