nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 31, 2008
In September 2003, in celebration of their 20th anniversary season, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performed an evening-length program of pieces from its early days titled The Phantom Project. Jones himself appeared in one solo called "Floating the Tongue" in which the dancer is asked to describe his movements while he makes them. Throughout the dance Jones kept enigmatically referring to being on Broadway, as if quoting a teacher from his adolescence schooling him in acceptable professional ambition. But the audience of downtown dance aficionados in attendance at The Kitchen in West Chelsea knew that here was one African American artist who had successfully resisted being swallowed up by the American show business machine and its still-stereotypical deployment of black bodies on the commercial stage. Jones was a capital-A, MacArthur genius-anointed avant-garde Artist. There was no reason to think that his career would diverge from the path of commissions, touring, and frequent BAM appearances that had sustained his company for two decades. But "Floating the Tongue" hinted at some deeper ambivalence about his artistic path, and I found Jones's performance in the piece haunting and unsettling.
It's amazing how much difference five years can make.
Jones is now the Tony-winning choreographer of one of the biggest hits on Broadway, Spring Awakening, and his most recent piece Fela, for which he serves as writer, director, and choreographer, about the life and music of the late Nigerian inventor of the Afrobeat sound, world-famous musician and political activist, Fela Kuti, has opened for a commercial run at Mikhail Baryshnikov's 37 Arts. This much star power fueling Jones's vision is a far cry from the austerity of his and the late Zane's early pieces, and the sheer dazzling abundance of the production—18 actor/dancers, nearly that many musicians, projections, video, an elaborately painted set that spills out into the auditorium, and rock-concert level lights and sound—is a testament to the serious Broadway producing muscle that has gotten behind this effort at pan-African consciousness-raising.
Not that Jones's work doesn't deserve it. Simply put—pull-quote alert—it's probably the most invigorating musical theatre experience that New York audiences can expect to have this season. For a show clocking in at nearly three hours, the focused energy expended by the cast borders on the preternatural. (Don't these folks get tired?) But unlike the often manic affect of typical Broadway dancers, these performers, trained in traditional African movement, have a self-possession that seems drawn from dynamic sources rooted far beneath the stage and deep within the earth. Being bored is not an option, and I would have happily sung, gyrated and clapped along for another three hours. (Although in that case, a toke of some of Kuti's beloved ganja would have been most welcome.)
And thank the gods for that energy, for the book itself (co-authored with Jim Lewis) falls into the "And then I..." direct-address trap of biographical theatre, as Kuti narrates the major events of his life for the audience. In this case, the conceit is that we are attending a concert at his performance/residence compound in Lagos, Nigeria, called The Shrine. The musicians (from the Afrobeat band Antibalas) are already jamming on Kuti's tunes as the audience enters the theatre, which is enveloped by Marina Draghici's set in a multicolor riot of political murals and surrealistic street art, bringing a much-needed blast of tropical warmth into a space that has always struck me as cold and unwelcoming. The female members of the cast come out of the audience dancing to the opening number "Everything Scatter," (although ironically, of course, what's actually happening is a gathering together), and then the men carry in Sahr Ngaujah, who will be channeling Kuti for the next several hours.
After he takes the stage, we learn the basic facts of his life: born into middle-class Black African privilege, educated in London where he formed his first band, returned to Nigeria, later spent time in the United States where he absorbed the lessons of the Black Power movement. He would eventually declare his compound an independent country, run for president of Nigeria, marry more than two dozen wives, and be subject to almost constant government harassment, culminating in a violent raid on his commune during which his elderly mother was thrown from a window, later dying from her injuries. Throughout all of this, he continued to make music that directly addressed the corruption and inequalities of Nigerian society and which used events from his own life to illustrate his political points. The song "Expensive Shit" being perhaps the cleverest example of this, as Kuti turned the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale of some swallowed cannabis into both a lesson in the absurdities inherent in any police state and a self-aggrandizing embellishment of his own legend.
Jones and Lewis do not present this narrative in chronological order but rather have rearranged events for maximum effect. While I don't object to this per se (though the show does create the distinct impression that the raid on his compound was retaliation for his presidential campaign, when in actuality his candidacy was an effort to come back from that devastating act of repression), I do object to the phony "climax" that's been gerrymandered into Fela's story. After his mother's death, he asks the African gods to allow him to see her one last time. This is supposedly to help him decide whether or not to remain in Nigeria and continue his political activism, therefore supplying the evening with the little dramatic action it possesses. (Although I only knew that's why he needed to talk to his mother because I read the press packet. The show itself is mystifyingly vague on this point.) And here is where "Broadway" asserts itself in all its contradictory impulses because this contrivance seems more designed to provide an excuse for a big production number (the unfortunate Dance of the Orishas where the creators' celebration of the beauty of African bodies tips over into a voyeuristic exploitation of them) and the kind of oleaginous, eleventh-hour pop ballad that's clogged up many a recent Broadway show—tellingly it's the one number NOT written by Kuti. There's no way of knowing which cook spoiled the broth by dumping the oil in, but my guess is that the Broadway middlebrows just couldn't leave genius well enough alone—Jones's or Kuti's.
One thing about this "And then I..." structure is that, while it often doesn't make for compelling drama (especially when scrambled like it is here), it does give a compelling performer the opportunity to connect with an audience in ways that more traditional dramatic forms often don't. And for that reason we can add another star to the roster of artists associated with this show because Ngaujah is completely in command from the moment he enters. Whether flirting shamelessly with the women on stage, schooling the audience in his theories of African rhythm (mostly involving the pelvis), playing the saxophone, singing, dancing, or giving a political speech, the man deserves every theatre award possible just for the quantity of performance skills the role demands and the ease with which he transitions from one impossible task to the next. It is largely his commanding stage presence, in partnership with the exuberance of the supporting ensemble, that makes the evening such a triumph.
But it also lends to its disappointment because the creators are so enraptured by Kuti's star power (and Ngaujah's performance) that they aren't interested in critiquing his shortcomings and contradictions as a political figure in any way that complicates our relationship to him. In reality he had problematic views of women, yet was the son of one of Africa's leading feminists. He was a socially engaged artist who failed in his efforts to create meaningful change in his society, retreating instead to a male fantasyland behind the walls of his commune where he could get high, make music, and love the ladies. One wishes there had been a more rigorously thought-through politics (to match the rigor of many of the choreographic choices) that made it clear that the kind of charisma possessed by a rock star isn't necessarily going to translate into the skills needed to create a political movement. We often get that confused in this culture, and if there's any political lesson those of us on the left need to be reminded of at this historical moment, it's THAT one. Too bad Jones et al were either uninterested or unwilling to risk alienating their perceived audience by exploring those issues in any depth.
But that's the cost of artistic experimentation and reaching out beyond the confines of one's safety zone. Jones, to a far greater extent than any of his colleagues in musical theatre (with the notable exceptions of Stew and the guys who wrote [title of show]), seems actively engaged in a search for the new forms and content that can constitute a politically engaged, populist musical theatre for the present century. He hasn't found the perfect balance yet between "Broadway" and "Art," but I suspect his dancer self knows from experience that sometimes the moments of disequilibrium can be the most fruitful. If the riptide of Broadway cliché proves too strong an undertow at his show's climax, Jones has built up enough artistic muscle over 30 years of making work to resist being completely swept away. And when he joins the cast on stage at the curtain call, his dancing seems to say, "I've found my artistic home. Just wait and see how much better this place is going to look after I rearrange the furniture and rehang all the pictures."