It was a time when you could walk into a club and meet someone who could turn your world upside down.
I’m still in the midst of a week that’s actually ten-days long, and not seven (and certainly not the work version of five). Yet one experience has been repeatedly surfacing to the top of my mind during every blip of downtime. Last week Fela! (You know: Produced by Jay-Z, Will, and Jada. Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones. Seen eight times by Spike Lee.) opened at the Curran in San Francisco, and I’m still reeling in the energy and the discourse. I was really lucky to be able to catch the show twice, once on opening night and again when the original Sandra Isadore attended herself.
I’m still trying to figure out if it’s in my top three – I’m limited only by the bandwidth of my brain (I’ve been making increasingly more typos every day and keep calling Thanksgiving “Christmas.”), but it’s certainly rising as a favorite as time continues. It’s a challenging show. It’s deep, political, social, and spirited. It’s a ridiculously perfect amalgamation of things I am interested in: musicals and cultural identity. They seem diametrically opposite, no? Entertainment vs. deep introspection – But it works. I learned so much in that show. It made me want to go out to a club and dance, and then it made me want to run off and study my personal and family history. How many shows do that for you?
When the show starts, you exit the Curran and enter the Shrine, a place of celebration that is not without its back story. If you are anti-musical but enjoy really thought-provoking stuff, Fela! is worth the one trip to the theater. If you’re a heady music snob and only like to hear “real music,” Fela Kuti defined authentic Nigerian soul. (I prepped for the show by listening to Fela Kuti’s music on Spotify. Honestly, I didn’t love it. After seeing the show, I realized that it’s because this music has to be experienced live. The recordings completely pale in comparison to the in-person experience of horns, drums, guitar.) If you’re more of a ballet patron than a theatergoer, you can’t help but be in total awe of the versatility of the dancers. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. (I totally stalked them after the second show, and just signed up for their master class at ODC.) It’s portrayed as more of a concert than just a musical, but no matter how you categorize it, it’s more thought-provoking than todays’ standard fare of entertainment.
This show requires discussion.
Listening to the cast talk after the show brought everything together. Fela! absolutely warrants a Q&A with these musicians, actors, and dancers – for whom the production itself solidified their personal and cultural identity. It’s clear in their voices how not being a part of the musical would have deprived them of a huge chunk of their personal journeys.
When is our turn?
As much as I related to the thoughts of being a person of color and a member of diaspora, I was more than aware of the limitations of commonality between Kuti’s Nigerian/American experience and me. I couldn’t help asking myself: When is there going to be an Asian musical like this? A Chinese one? I’ve seen Miss Saigon, but I couldn’t relate to it as much. (If you tell me Flower Drum Song is on par with Fela!/Miss Saigon, I am going to bop you on the head.) Identity formation is complex. I honestly think the dancing in Fela! is a big reason why it resonated within me more than Miss Saigon.
I wonder when such a moment will be for me. To feel reflected on the stage.
A theme of pain.
One of the most moving points in the show is when they regale the torture that throttled down on Fela Kuti’s compound. A man dragged down the stairs by his testicles. A woman raped above her own feces. A mother thrown out a second-story window. A bottle and knife extracted from a woman at the hospital. Where I once thought Hair’s reference to teargas was eerily timely and current, I found these specific and true stories in Fela! deeply disturbing because it seemed to all hint toward the future: of the occupy movements, and who knows what else unrest is brewing with this economy and political state.