I had the good fortune of catching the beginning of a five-night run of the traveling production of Fela! last night at the Merriam Theatre on Broad Street. We featured it in our calendar yesterday. Here are ten things I saw, heard and learned:
1. There are some big names attached to this production. The cover of the program proudly’s printed: “Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Will Smith & Jada Pinkett Smith present FELA!” But page one of the program lists Ruth & Stephen Hendel, The National Theatre of Great Britain, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Fela Broadway LLC, Edward Tyler Nahem, and Knitting Factory Entertainment. How much do you think those three paid to have their names at the top? $500K? A mill? $10,000,000? The consensus of guesses lands them at between one and ten million. For Bill T. Jones, you gotta pay.
2. Michelle Williams played Sandra, Fela’s American paramour and a woman who influenced him greatly with black power. Let’s just go there: She was aiight. Love me some Destiny’s Child, but I guess she was hired for her pipes because she was stiff as a board on that stage. She can sing. She’s got that gospeldelic instrument, and it’s pretty powerful in person. But from the moment she came on stage at the top of a moveable ladder, she looked nervous, scared, carefully and gingerly making every calculated movement. She needs to loosen up. When you’re on stage with an Antibalas-inspired band full of brass, African drums and extraordinary dancers spinning magic all around you, and it looks like you need a cocktail, something’s not right.
3. The first act was so hype. And it was a tiny bit weird that there was a giant, snaking line out the doors and down Broad to get in and pick up tickets. Some ushers came out to assure us that the curtain wouldn’t come up until we were seated. But that wasn’t true. By the time an usher was seeing us to our seat, the play had started. Patrons were still being sat at almost 8pm. Gettin’ the kinks out, I guess.
4. Early in the first act, we were coaxed to participate and get up out of our seats, move and shout. It’s something that’s not easy for strangers to get zealous about in low lighting and without enough alcohol. First we had to simply move our hips. But the “clock” game (”Underground Spiritual Game”) was next level. Imagine your hips at the center of a clock, and we slowly, then quickly cocked our hips at 12 o’ clock, 1 o’ clock, 2 o’ clock, and so on, in a circle. Then he’d shout out “Three and nine!” That’d be a side to side move. “Six and 12!” That’d be back to front (sexy). Then “2 7 5!” The dancers, obviously, nailed it. The audience? Not too many folks were willing to enthusiastically bang out moves like that in their tiny (the Merriam’s not built for large people or dancing in front of your seat) personal space.
5. The dancers were unbelievable and exploded in the mind-blowing “B. I. D. (Breaking It Down)” portion of Act One. African dancing is no joke. And these dancers are well-versed in everything from modern to hip-hop to contemporary to ballet. You have to be. African dance demands an unparalleled athleticism. Just watching with a belly of nachos from Jose Pistola’s gave me a little cramp.
6. The production quality was pretty interesting for a few reasons; it was SO MUCH to take in. There were honestly moments when I felt like I couldn’t soak it up: You’re trying to understand what Fela’s saying in a thickly-accented English, watch hypnotic dancers who are 13-strong, and then there were some lyrics projected above the stage to enhance your understanding of the songs being sung. Then Michelle came out, and being fascinated by her awkwardness made it even more extra. Not sure that that’s a bad thing (not talking about the Michelle part), but it’s part of what makes Fela! such a fascinating and commanding experience.
7. The second act was decidedly less energetic and a bit more somber. The first act is more about the essence of the music, what makes Afrobeat special and Kuti’s origins. It also sets up the second act for the soul-crushing sadness of his mother’s death and the constant shit he had to deal with from national regime’s storming and beating his 100+-populated compound. But you do get “Water No Get Enemy” and “Zombie,” which are SICK songs.
8. The band was outstanding – their timing perfect, their percussion tight as can be, their brasses loud and hot, and that sax master. Man. There was a small part of me that was hoping, by some miracle, they’d cast a sexy Fela who actually knew how to blow. Because Fela carries around a sax as a prop while the band pummels out stunning saxophone runs and unbelievable solos. Fela knew music – he studied it in London. And could play the sax and the keys, and that was part of his mystique. He could walk around Lagos and blow on that woodwind like the Pied Piper and his loyal constituents would know that they needed to get to the next Shrine moment. It was like his tool of conversion.
9. Tonight’s performance was led by Duain Richmond, an alternative lead, and he was on point. He was the glue that held it all together. Fela often wore next to nothing or skin-tight jumpsuits, and, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t NOT looking forward to that aspect of this production. And he did not disappoint. Richmond is built like a sex machine, and for the parts of the performance where he was topless, it was not unpleasant. One of my favorite moments was when he lights up a fat joint, during a conversational interlude, and an audience member (whom I realize now was planted) shouted out “Pass that!” Kuti perfectly riffs an exchange where he says “You didn’t say the magic word,” and he looks at his band who shout, in unison, “Puff puff pass!” The humor was not lost on this audience. It may be prearranged but for a minute, it felt totally spontaneous.
10. After a look-see through the playbill, we found that one of the dancers, in fact one we’d been eyeing all night for his graceful elegance, is a full-ride scholar at the University of the Arts. Uyoata Udi, a Nigerian-descent L.A. native, was beyond perfect, and it was a pleasant surprise to see a little U Arts love in the program. Oh, and right above him? Fricken’ Tricia M. Taitt graduated from Wharton with a BS and got an M.B.A. from Duke. Damn. The stage at the Merriam this week is where some truly talented and brilliant people are shining bright.