FELA! Opens in DC
As the audience gathered into Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sydney Harman Hall for the opening night of FELA! in DC, I hoped all the congressional staffers making their way inside enjoyed a good happy hour beforehand.
FELA! is, after all, an Afrobeat musical. Some fans came prepared, dancing in the aisles. Others came straight from work on the Hill, donning business suits and tense muscles. Maybe a margarita could have helped, I thought.
Within a few minutes, though, both groups joined in the fun, cheering a musical that took New York and London by storm – a musical that on Friday overtly criticized the very audience applauding it.
Rarely does a mainstream Broadway show work successfully as organized protest; but for the next few weeks, Bill T. Jones’ latest production has that opportunity on a national scale as Broadway’s FELA! opened this weekend to packed audiences in the nation’s capital.
FELA! is based on the life of Fela Kuti – a Nigerian musical legend and human rights activist who did not always see eye to eye with the American establishment. …Not that you’d know it from Friday evening.
The opening night crowd laughed and applauded Fela’s jokes about colonialism and governmental corruption. When the first act closed with the hit song “I.T.T (International Thief Thief),” audience members cheered along as the cast carried signs out labeling Monsanto, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other organizations as international criminals.
But this is DC, in the heart of the downtown district only blocks from the IMF headquarters. This is the city that subsidizes oil and agribusiness domestically and abroad. Any destructive foreign policy by the United States in Nigeria started here, and when Fela Kuti sang about violations in his country, he was often singing about this very place. Undoubtedly members of the audience saw their own employers’ names written on the signs across the stage, yet there we all were, clapping together hypnotically.
Afrobeat is contagious, and the cast and band of FELA! perform it beautifully. Their impeccable rhythm and endearing leading man (played by Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the role on Broadway) earn them favor early on.
They draw from that favor later in the show, and not only by insulting the audience’s workplaces. The second act slows down drastically to the point of needing coffee, especially after the frenzy of Act I. On Friday, when Fela entered a dream-like spiritualist’s vision, audience members checked their watches.
Fortunately, the creators save some of Fela’s biggest hits for the slower second act, including “Zombie” and “Coffin for Head of State.” What’s more, Act II includes the most chilling moment of the show: the stark depiction of a 1977 raid on Fela’s compound and some of the atrocities that ensued.
FELA!‘s incredible music and willingness to speak truth into a room of DC politicians set this musical apart, just as both set Fela Kuti apart until his death in 1997. It is a musical must-see in any city, but its message makes it a particularly invigorating and thought-provoking show to catch during its brief stint in Washington.
FELA! runs through October 9, 2011. Purchase tickets at 202-547-1122 or at ShakespeareTheatre.org.