We’re going to sweat up here,” promises lead performer Sahr Ngaujah at the start of Bill T. Jones’ hyperkinetic chronicle of the artistic, social, political and spiritual awakening of Nigerian musician-activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He’s not lying. What it lacks in structure and concision “Fela!” makes up for in heat, energy and sensuality. Like last season’s “Passing Strange” and this summer’s “Hair” revival, this dance-intensive bio-portrait aims to be less traditional musical theater than cathartic experience, lacing its communicative passion with infectious euphoria, rebellious anger and heartfelt despair.
A pioneering force in 20th century world music, Fela developed his signature Afrobeat style by fusing American jazz and James Brown-influenced funk with West African drums, traditional Yoruba chants and Highlife horns into epic riffs that defy just about anyone alive to keep still.
Channeling his human rights activism and outspoken opposition to Nigeria’s corrupt, post-colonial military government into his music, Fela declared the Kalakuta compound where he lived with his commune through much of the 1970s an independent republic. He was subjected to repeated police harassment and raids, culminating in a vicious 1977 attack during which his 78-year-old mother, women’s movement leader Funmilayo, was thrown from a second-floor window and suffered fatal injuries. Fela responded by placing her coffin on the Lagos capitol steps.
Flashing back from a final concert at Fela’s Kalakuta performance space, the Shrine, after his mother’s death and before his planned departure from Nigeria, book writers Jim Lewis and Jones fold this experience into a raw but fairly linear mosaic.
With his ripped body poured into a series of skintight Afro-Elvis suits in baby blue, pink and white, Ngaujah makes a dynamic frontman as Fela, his expressive vocals and limber dance moves adding to his considerable charisma. Comfortably addressing the audience throughout, he has no trouble conveying the wild charm tinged with egomania of the show’s subject, whose spell as a maverick political voice was matched by his personal magnetism (he had 27 wives).
In the first act, Fela “breaks it down,” tracing his eclectic accumulation of musical influences, first in London, where he went under the pretext of studying medicine, then back in Nigeria, and in late-’60s Los Angeles, where his political consciousness was raised by a girlfriend in the black power movement (Sparlha Swa).
Accompanied by Brooklyn-based collective Antibalas, a sizzling 10-piece band led here by Aaron Johnson, the 16-member ensemble tears through some electrifying dance numbers, notably “The Clock,” an extended lesson in precision booty-shaking punctuated by the refrain “Original, no artificiality.” Here and elsewhere, the eight proud beauties in tribal Victoria’s Secret threaten to burn a hole in the stage. Even during Fela’s scrapes with police, the mood is one of exuberant, untouchable defiance, notably in “Expensive Shit,” a hilarious account of prison guards waiting in vain for the evidential hash he swallowed to pass through his system.
While the inevitable shift to a more somber mood is telegraphed in act one when Funmilayo’s ghost (Abena Koomson) sings the soulful “Trouble Sleep,” the show’s balance still requires some tinkering to counter a certain loss of juice in act two. But the climactic 1977 attack is conveyed in powerful silence, with horrific testimonials of rape, brutality and humiliation projected onto the rear wall. The protest that follows, with countless coffins bearing the innocent dead being laid on the government steps, is equally affecting.
There perhaps could be more texture in the central character portrait, providing deeper insight into the radical showman, and anyone expecting a detailed life story may be disappointed. Fela’s questionable attitudes toward women are suggested rather than explored, and his later life, his ongoing political activity and death from AIDS-related illness in 1997 are absent. But the show never professes to be a comprehensive biography. Instead, director-choreographer Jones pumps restless, changeable rhythms into the narrative that seem a natural approach for an impressionistic dance-storyteller.
Much of the choreography is vigorously executed freeform Afrocentric moves — convulsive, animalistic and highly athletic. Occasionally, however, Jones embellishes with more formal grace notes, such as a chilling goosestep/tap combination or an elaborate dream ballet during the divination ceremony in which Fela looks to his mother’s spirit for guidance.
Working with frequent design collaborators Marina Draghici on sets and costumes, and Robert Wierzel on lighting, Jones fashions an environmental staging, lining the theater walls with shanty-town corrugated iron and splashing them with naif images, Miro-esque shapes, celestial rays and iconic portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Funmilayo.
All this is deftly integrated with Peter Nigrini’s video projections to create a show that’s invigoratingly messy, visceral and transporting. Further shaping and tightening might strengthen its commercial future following the limited Off Broadway run at 37 Arts, but even in its present rough-edged form, “Fela!” is an impassioned, moving tribute to a musical and political revolutionary.