A Spanglish blog dedicated to the works, ruminations, and mongrel pyrotechnics of Yago S. Cura, an Argentine-American poet, translator, publisher & futbol cretin. Yago publishes Hinchas de Poesia, an online literary journal, & is the sole proprietor of Hinchas Press.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
FELA, THE MUSICAL!
So, Theater makes me drowsy. I can't even watch a Shakespearean play without yawning through the third act. The only play I was ever able to sit through was The Tempest; I had seen the play in 1996 in London at a park and the weather had become a character in the play because as Prospero was doing his sorcery, the weather followed his command. But, I fell asleep to Rosencratz and Guilderstern at the Barbican, and have felt drowsy at most other theater related functions. Damn, I can't even go to a reading without feeling that less is more, like a lot less, like let's do a reading in twenty minutes or so and spend the rest of the night, the good portion of the night in a bar drinking pints and talking about anything but the poetry that we heard or read or had in our heads as we were reading.
Well, after seeing the show on December 10th, I thought that I would add some ammunition of praise to the discourse being generated by this dramatic work. For one thing, the choreographer Bill Jones seems to be a big deal. I don't know squat about dance but the NY Times says, "the choreographer and director Bill T. Jones has come up with startling visual equivalents for the primal and sophisticated fusion of cultural elements that is Afrobeat, the music of Fela." Sensuous doesn't even begin to describe the manifold gyrations, gyroscopic iterations, and jiggling that took place on stage. I couldn't describe the level of dance with any technical terms, but it was hot, sexy, and like butter churned with jet fuel.
The set was decorated as if it were the Shrine, the fabled bar and venue owned by Fela Kuti. It was not only a venue for him and his music, but it was also where he would subsequently launch his political programs ("Black President") and where he cooked his ideology. It was also were the Nigerian military apparatus killed Fela's mother, Funmilayo. The history of the music is just as important as the message, and there are many orientations that the playwrites include which guide us through the narrative that is Fela's life. However, history is not of primary importance; response to history, or Fela's response to historical events, is what propels the narrative. For example, "In giving physical life to Mr. Kuti’s songs of political rage, sorrow and satire, Mr. Jones and company offer exciting music and its social context in one breath. There are occasional filmed images of Nigerian crowds and narrative segments meant to orient us in history." This is done seamlessly so it's not pedantic, but enough context is given so that even a person unfamiliar with Fela's life would be able to grasp the consequences of narrative events.
Fela, the Musical! is also very sexually charged as Fela's life was a sexually charged occurrence as well. The choreography is such that you can tell the individual relationships that Fela had within his harem, and a harem he did have. The women range from squat and muscular to sinewy and tall and they all share a common fate as the man. Or as the NY Times says, "Fela’s group marriage to his back-up girls makes saucy and elegant use of one of the show’s greatest assets: the deliciously self-possessed, vulpine women who play Fela’s adoring “queens,” who are always on hand to towel his brow and light his joints between numbers. Some are actually, mutilated and tortured after Fela is taken to jail. And their stories are flashed on the screens as well to denote their similar fates.
In terms of narration, I loved it most when Fela was messing with the Nigerian goverment. The story tells of this one time he was arrested for have a joint in the Shrine so he ate the joint; they took him in hoping that he would release the joint after his stomach had digested it and it would come out naturally. So, they keep himin jail but Fela waits until the guards falls asleep and he mixes his shit in with the rest of the stools. The actor playing Fela relates this while burning one down on stage; it is a great stoner moment, actually.
Last, I just want to give huge props to Antibalas who were just amazing, playing all the standards that Fela was famous for; they are a band from Brooklyn that are not just socially conscious, but amazing jam musicians. I have one of their albums and like it a lot; they have been around for ever, playing concerts at Summer Stage in Brooklyn and playing venues like S.O.B.'s. Or as Ben Brantley says, "As played by the Brooklyn band Antibalas, standing in for the army of musicians that accompanied Mr. Kuti on his world tours, this is music that gets into your bloodstream, setting off vibrations you’ll live with for days to come."