Sahr Ngaujah in Fela!
(© Monique Carboni)
Sahr Ngaujah in Fela!
(© Monique Carboni)
The main reason to see Fela!, the bio-musical about Nigerian activist, composer, and performer Fela Anikulapo Kuti currently at 37 Arts, is the exuberant choreography by director/choreographer Bill T. Jones, beautifully danced by a hard-working ensemble.

The show -- conceived by Jones with Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel and featuring a book by Lewis and Jones -- is staged as a 1977 farewell concert, as Fela (Sahr Ngaujah) gets ready to leave Nigeria following a government crackdown that resulted in the death of his mother, Funmilayo (Abena Koomson). As Fela speaks directly to the audience, he sings some of his most well-known compositions such as "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" and talks about his life, politics, and music -- including his formation of the Afrobeat sound, which fuses jazz, funk, and traditional African chanting.

The main drawback to this structure is that the details of Fela's life are awkwardly told to the audience in expositional patter. Since Fela does most of the talking, there's also little opportunity to create a multi-dimensional portrait of the artist. We see a little of his temper, in moments when he yells at the onstage band, making them start songs over. The strongest relationship developed within the show is between mother and son, with Funmilayo occasionally making beyond the grave appearances, accompanied by a somewhat cheesy lighting effect by designer Robert Wierzel. The only other character to be identified by name in the program is Sandra (Sparlha Swa), a Black Power activist that Fela meets on a trip to America. However, none of the supporting players -- including various individuals portrayed by ensemble members -- are given much depth of characterization.

The plus-side to the staging, of course, is that the majority of the show is comprised of musical numbers. Nearly all of the songs are vocally led by Ngaujah as Fela, and show off the actor's energy and charisma. The band -- comprised of members of Antibalas and other local Afrobeat musicians -- is excellent, and as much a part of the production as the cast. Also making favorable impressions are Marina Draghici's set and costume designs, which create a colorful and vibrant stage environment.

Most of the highly kinetic dances involve hip gyrations that are both earthy and sexual. Fela and the ensemble members even give an audience tutorial in how to do the "around the clock" motions that make up so much of the movement vocabulary. When Jones breaks this pattern, using militaristic angular movements in the social protest number, "Zombie," the change is immediately noticeable and amplifies the dramatic tension.

It's not until nearly the end of the musical when the production abandons the pretense of the staged concert to present a fantastical spirit journey that reunites Fela with his dead mother. This sequence also includes the only song in the show not written by Kuti, "Shine," which is sung sweetly by Funmilayo and brings the emotional arc of the piece to a strong conclusion.