A Graphic Musical Look at the History of Military Rule in Africa

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Al Hirschfeld Theater
302 W. 45th Street
New York, N.Y.

History surrounds you when you enter the Al Hirschfeld Theater in New York to see the musical Fela!, which opened last Thursday. There are huge screens in the front of the theater that run a series of newspaper headlines from Nigerian newspapers in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. One after the other, with stories and photos, they tell the story of a country run by the army hurtling out of control. Recession. Corruption. Military dictatorship. Civil war. Brutality. The play opens slowly, with musicians on stage playing the first musical chords of the songs of the story, and then the tale of colorful and charismatic musician/politician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti unfolds within the framework of the historic headlines.

There is a moment in the second act of Fela! when the play turns from a joyous musical into a chilling story of politics and cold-blooded murder in Nigeria in the 1970s. It starts a torrid finale to the play that ends with a colorful and vivid explosion of music and story.

Fela! Is a good example of a musical that can be very serious, even electric, and tell much about history and politics. The play, superb from start to finish, is a fine example of how theater can retell the story of events and warn people of the present era not to repeat the past.

Fela was a Nigerian singer and ad hoc political leader who used his best-selling music to deliver biting denunciations of the harsh military government of Nigeria. He worked out of The Shrine, a nightclub in Lagos, the capital of the country, where his devoted followers helped him become a political leader and the 'president' of his own mythical country within the border of Nigeria.

When Fela peaked as a musical star in Nigeria, after spending some time in the U.S., the country was at the height of its civil strife and ten years into rule by a tough military regime. What he did -- and did well -- was to trash the ruling figures in the country with the scorching lyrics of his music.

This is the third revival of the play. It began as an off Broadway musical in 2008, returned as a Broadway show that won three Tony awards and is back again for a month as part of a world tour. Three of the producers are entertainment stars Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

The story is laden with African dancing and music to the Afrobeat sound partially developed by Fela that came out of Africa in the ‘70s. There are nine women, some of the wives of Fela, who anchor the dancing, along with a half dozen gifted men. For over two hours, they work with Fela to produce a tantalizing musical using mostly Kuti’s original music.

The first act carries a little history, but not much. That comes in torrents in the second act when 1,000 government soldiers attack Fela’s compound. Several men and women who work with him are wounded or beaten and his mother, singer/politician Funmilayo, is thrown from a second floor window and killed. Chaos ensues and Fela and his followers lead a massive public demonstration to mourn the death of Funmilayo. It is a riveting scene, one of the best history scenes on an American stage in years.

Fela! is full of history, in addition to the newspaper headlines on the screens. Fela explain his own life and his role in the efforts to reform the government and the sad results of that. He tells a mournful story of oppression, started with the very first song of the play, about why the country doesn’t work anymore, and explains what happened to so many people who opposed the government. He explains, too, how his own success was a blessing and a curse.

Fela came from a well-connected family in Nigeria. His mother was a women’s activist, his dad was president of the country’s teacher’s union and his two brothers were doctors. Fela’s first cousin, Wole Soyinka, won the Nobel Prize for literature. Fela himself was educated at the Trinity College of Music in London, where he started a band in the early 1960s. He moved back to Nigeria, then to Ghana to explore music there. He went to the U.S. in the late 1960s and spent time with Sandra Smith, of the Black Panthers.

He returned to Nigeria in the early 1970s and started a new band, opened a night club and started producing albums with a heavy Afro beat in 1977 (he married twenty-seven women along the way). He released Zombie, an anti-government album. The police raided his studio, burning it and killing his mother. He was badly beaten. Fela was arrested several more times and at one point served twenty months in prison.

The play tells his story and, indirectly, the story of strife in Nigeria in the ‘70s and throughout the 1990s. It was severe. The army took over Nigeria in a series of military coups in 1966. The army gave up its rule in 1979, but democratic President Shehu Shagan was seen as corrupt and overthrown by the army. That new military government was itself overthrown in 1984. Then those leaders themselves were forced out of office a year later. Throughout these years, military leaders abandoned most economic advancements and relied heavily on European and American oil companies and their taxes for revenue. Democratic elections were promised in 1993, but the results declared void. Another military coup followed the elections. Democracy was finally restored in 1999, two years after Fela’s death, after nearly thirty-six years of military rule.

Fela! is a powerful history lesson.

Sahr Ngaujah stars as Fela in almost all performances of the play. He is spectacular. He dances, sings, tells funny and sad stories, leaps about the stage like he is ready for a gymnastics team in the London Olympics and, again and again, draws you into his sometimes joyful and sometimes sad journey through Nigerian history, and life. He is full of boundless energy. He sets the stage on fire from the moment he walks on to it until the moment he leaves it, hands held high in the air.

The play is well directed by Bill Jones. He gets wonderful performances from Melanie Marshall as the mom, Funmilayo, who nearly steals the show at one point, and Paulette Ivory, Ismael Kouyate, Gelan Lambert, Rasaan-Elijah Green and a large ensemble. Jim Lewis and director Bill Jones did a fine job writing a book that manages to tell a good story; they were not overwhelmed by the music.

What is striking about Fela! is that the civil strife in Nigeria in the 1970s is not terribly different from the strife in many African countries today, as shown in last year’s revolutions in the Arab Spring.

If Fela! comes to your city on this tour, see it. It is as vivid as history gets.

PRODUCTION: Produced by Shawn (Jay-Z) Carter, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Sony Pictures Entertainment, others. Sets: Marina Draghici; Lighting: Robert Wierzel; Sound: Robert Kaplowitz; Projections: Peter Nigrini. The play is directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones.

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