By Damola Awoyokun
The biopic musical is a superb production of acting and playwriting. It is not easy to keep interesting a sequence of scenes in which a single character appears in all the scenes. In 2006, Crown Troupe overcame this problem in their own masterful stage adaptation of Okot P’bitek’s poem, Song of Lawino. They repeatedly froze the main actors at one part of the bare Beckettian stage letting a different set of main actors take over the action in another part of the stage in order to creatively defeat the monotony and boredom of allowing the same personalities to carry on the not-action-driving poem for so long. In the musical, Fela (Sahr Ngaujah) is the narrator of the story of which he is the main actor so he is monotonously bound to be in every scene. To keep his appearance interesting, he takes up multiple charismatic personalities: he is a showman, dancer, saxophonist, spiritual leader, military general, stand-up comedian, husband, civil society activist, prisoner of conscience, torturer, journalist etc. To counterbalance all these manifestation of charisma and gust of energies, the playwrights Jim Lewis and Bill Jones introduce Fela’s mum, first in Fela’s imagination, then in the physical, then in chthonic realm, the Fourth stage. And her presence is marked by awe, calmness, gravity and grace superbly delivered by Melanie Marshall.
The audience would feel her coming every time. After Fela acts out his deceptive sojourn to England, his persistent struggles with highlife’s domination of the West African coast, he then acts out how he found his own musical idiom and plays for the audience a classic of Afrobeat. The riff is deliberately overextended and the dancers overexert themselves. It is the playwrights’ strategy of lending dramatic force to the imminence of the gravity, grace and calmness of Fela’s mum. And they both render a duet of Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am. It was beautiful and arguably more magnificent than the original. (Maybe some of Fela’s music would have been more scintillating had he substituted gender parity of duets for call and response; contemporaneity for subsequence). While the scintillating harmony of the duet magnified by the alienating distance and chemistry between Fela and Funmilayo is on course, the multimedia screens beam historical footages of Nigeria’s independence celebrations, how thousands of kids triumphantly wave the new Nigeria flag; they were joyful; they had lights in their eyes and hopes in their smiles of what Nigeria would mean to the world. See what it is now.
But the duet with its dramatic appearance foregrounds a greater drama (the destruction of the shrine) and a greater duet (the political awakening of Fela in the US) that is to come. Historically in the sixties, Fela, though he came from a politically conscious family was fanatically concerned about getting his music right to be bothered about the civil war and the ethnic hatred that led to it. During these bloodletting crises, Fela was busy singing, Highlife Time, Everyday I got my Blues, Omuti ti de and Onidodo. It was when he travelled to Los Angeles and met Sandra Izsadore that his unconquerable social consciousness flamed. What the great Funmilayo Kuti could not achieve, Sandra Izsadore did. Even during the duet with Sandra, like the duet between Ray Charles and Betty Carter in Baby, It's Cold Outside, while Sandra is passionately educating Fela about black consciousness and civil rights activists, Fela is passionately talking love, bed, sex. It should be recalled that when Fela was searching for his own unique musical expression, he sublimated the insatiable fire of his venereal appetite to create a sacred component of Afrobeat: the baseline. In LA, he is busy checking out his lecturer’s baseline, bustline, calculating the Na Poi possibilities. Sandra wins the duet. Fela flies back to Lagos. He makes music his weapon. The screens above beam historical footages and newspaper headlines: Riots in Lagos! 35 students dead! Military rulers imprison Fela!
The other most profound drama with an astonishing emotional chiaroscuro happens in the second part of the musical. Fela’s dancers have changed from their lewd dance costumes into gorgeously dignified attires. After Fela lambasts Nigerian press for calling his girls underage prostitutes, he proposes to them, they debate and accept, marry and they jolly about the stage in a humorously engaging manner, taking pictures and having fun. Then the soldiers strike to destroy the shrine, tearing it apart piece by piece. Since the government said Unknown Soldier should be held responsible, it is part of the director, Bill Jones’ ingenuity that the audience does not see the soldiers but their vileness is everywhere conspicuous. In the swirling vortex of the chaos, Fela is the only one standing firm, sax in the hand like a hurricane that inspires terror and vast destruction round its edges but whose centre is as calm and peaceful that a butterfly can play around unruffled in that eye of the storm. That butterfly is a mournful version of Sorrow Tears and Blood Fela is slowly intoning. The sequence is the best in the musical. It is terrifying and wonderful to watch.
I do not know if Chike Ofili actually watched the musical or if he did, he allowed the fumes of marijuana which he said was smoked in the shrine to cloud his sense organs “via satellite”(as the Fela character says during yabbis). For what else can account for his bizarre review of an obviously great production? Granted the Tolstoyan or Achebean use of irony is missing in contemporary Nigerian literature, that is why Ofili could not understand when Jones describes Fela as a sacred monster. Indeed Fela was. His life rehashed the permutations of Mr Ogun Lakaye’s qualities and struggles including his tragic flaws. Ofili even outdid the bigoted and discredited perspective of Chinweizu when he insinuated that the British Council’s sponsorship of the screening, and the preponderance of “a fairly large community of Whites and their white-washed Nigerian versions” attest to the unBlackness and unNigerianess of the musical. They had better not have a hand in it at all. He needs to be reminded that Fela collaborated with people of all races. And that whites have taken on works of black experience and successfully rendered it to the very best. Jude Kelly successfully directed the première of Soyinka’s Beatification of Area Boy. Steven Spielberg did the same for Alice Walker’s Colour Purple. Ditto for Taylor Hackford who directed Ray Charles biopic and Richard LaGravenese who directed Freedom Writers.Fela! was written and directed by black brothers. Nothing will satisfy a mind that is already imprisoned by prejudice.
When Ofili claimed Fela never denounced Nigeria only the political leadership. It became apparent, he did not know Fela at all. In Lady, Fela took on women. In Yellow Fever, he took on those who bleach and hence insults the black skin. In Coffin for Head of State and Shuffering and Shmiling, he took on Christians and Muslims. In Sorrow, Tears and Blood, he took on the complacency of Nigerians with their ready desire to make friends with hardships and not fight. Fela took on everyone except himself. In Beast of No Nation, he even anticipated British Prime Minister David Cameron (Father Courage and His Children) who described the Arabs conducting peaceful yes-we-can insurrections against their sit-tight leaders as “inspiring” and asked their quaking governments to respect their human rights.Yet as I write, he is on an unscrupulous and shameless arms trade mission to the Middle East seeking to cash in on the situation and beat other competitors to juicy arms deals. Fela replies in Beast of No Nation: “Animal wan dash us human rights!” And in Teacher Don’t Teach me Nonsense, he says, “teacher don’t teach me nonsense.”
The musical has a major thematic fault of course but it is not structural. Granted Fela’s cosmic descent into the fourth stage to meet his mother provides the costumes, visual effects, choreography departments to unleash the best of their creative capabilities, however it is too thematically flimsy to serve as the apotheosis of the musical no matter the slice of his life that is selected for stage. The last three scenes amateurishly connect to themselves by a shoelace.