By Sexual Correspondent Andrea Plaid
I emailed my friend Kaisha that I got a free ticket to see Fela!, the new musical co-conceived, directed and choreographed Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones.
“I’m a little embarrassed that i don’t know his music,” she wrote back, “I feel like everyone on the planet is a fan!”
That makes two of us.
What I do know about Fela Kuti:
1) an ex-roommate claimed that a Queen, the title Kuti gave to his back-up dancers/wives/lovers, tried to recruit her into the troupe.
2) Kuti was a Yoruba man
3) his music doesn’t move me to put him on my playlist for the revolution.
Now, as far as Jones is concerned, the show’s creator, I want him to choreograph the revolution. I have loved Jones’ work since I saw Still/Here, his meditative piece on the journeys of illness, on PBS several years ago, which partly stemmed from his living as a Black gay man who’s HIV+ but also having his life and business partner Arnie Zane, a white man, die from the illness. Not only did the dance stay in my mind, but the dancers’ bodies. Jones had people who weren’t professional dancers and/or they were of size as part of the on-stage troupe. This, either right around or before the days of Drag Kings, Sluts, and Goddesses, Big Moves, Fat Bottom Revue, and Brown Girl Burlesque and other dance and performance troupes started their work on normalizing bodies of size on the contemporary dance stage.
Beyond all this, and a dabbling knowledge of Yoruba religion and culture and African dance, I saw Fela!
Jones stages another beholding show with Fela. Instead of the Still/Here’s austere, contemplative beauty, this musical is riotous, saturated color and the disciplined spontaneity that’s both African dance and music and Jones’ signature. The stage is the entire theater, thoroughly muraled and with strung-up block-party lights. It’s a concert at Kuti’s famous Shrine made multimedia, and everyone in the theater seats was the concert-going audience. Kuti (Sahr Ngaujah), his band (Antibala), and his dancers, including the Queens, command the stage as only master performers, the politically charismatic, and those who party knowing that death comes to capture them can and do.
At this concert, Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti tells us how he became Fela Anikulapo Kuti, through the baptisms of seeing his home country of Nigeria ruined by corrupt presidents and their cronies and colonialism; traveling to Ghana, England, and the US and hearing James Brown (who visited Kuti at the Shrine), Frank Sinatra (Kuti got into an argument with him), and jazz; digging Black Power thinkers and writers; returning to Nigeria to harassment, jail, torture, arson, death (of his mom and, ultimately, his), and a failed presidential run; creating the genre-melding music of Afrobeat that radicalized Nigeria and quakes the world to this day.
I noticed a couple of odd things about this musical.
Ever present are the dancers/singers, who morph into townspeople, salsa dancers, and spirits. The troupe, both men and women—except for Sparlha Swa, who plays Sandra–have no individual singing roles. The men are mostly bare-chested, either jacket-covered or shirtless, a physical celebration of Black male pulchritude; even Ngaujah bares and covers his torso. The women wear the dappled, ringed make-up are dress in variation of one-legged unitards and short and/or tight skirts when they portray the Queens, in head wraps, tops, and tied-at-the-side African cloth are when they’re townspeople, or white, flowing, strapless dresses when they’re spirits.
Perhaps because of their physical and numerical presence–ten women are on stage; Kuti, at one point had 27 Queens, pared it down to 12 women who rotated out, and eventually divorced them all—I’m reminded that the women, either garbed as Queens or townswomen, are eroticized assistants, sauntering to Kuti to light his cigarettes/pot, offer a towel for his sweat, or take away an instrument once he’s done playing it. When the men perform the same duties, however, they walk with an efficient, asexual clip.
The character Kuti mentions his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, and his three children in passing. The women who most influenced his political life and imagination—his mom Funmilayo, who was a socialist-nationalist and feminist activist, and Sandra (Smith) Isidore, a Black Panther Party member and a student of Black Power literature and thought—don’t counterweigh the representation of the Queens. And they have singing roles. Funmilayo (Abena Koomson)–though she dies in the second half—is presented throughout the musical as a specter with light rays beaming from her, though the actor herself is mostly backlit during most of the performance. Either that, or Kuti’s mom is a piece of the Shrine mural, in semi-profile and eyes cast away and semi-downward, to which Fela speaks. The only time the audience sees Fela’s mother face is when her son goes behind the veil between this life and the spirit world to have a heart-to-heart with her.
Jones and Co. don’t present Sandra as disembodied woman, just another sexualized one. Sandra is an in-the-flesh woman, but presented as a fist-in-the-air, head-wrap-to-there, elephant-pants-and-midriff-baring-top wearing sistah. According to one article, she introduced Kuti to pro-Black literature and thought as well as was his lover, muse, advocate, and soulmate. ; the musical gives the impression that Kuti picked up on these ideas during his travels in the US. Then he met Sandra, a(nother) hot, sexy (African) American woman for Kuti to take as a(nother) lover.
Okay, Jones and Co. offers these pause-inducing images of the women, which seem to follow the tradition of the women’s stories being subjugated or silenced in some heroic male narratives. Then, something stranger happens at the end of the play.
The ensemble is playing this rousing version of “Coffin Head of State.” (Okay, I did dance. A little bit.) Then, a slide appears on the wall saying that Fela died in 1997 and millions of people mourned his passing. Now, if I didn’t know better—after being told for about 2 hours how heroic and radical Kuti was—quite a few clichéd heroic endings would have come to mind: he died in a hail of martial bullets! He died in an arson-caused fire at his beloved commune! He died of fatal stab to the heart administered by a government-hired assassin!
The fact: Fela Kuti died from complications due to AIDS. The same year Jones made Still/Here for PBS.
This fact is mentioned briefly on the musical’s website and mentioned in articles I’ve read in preparing this review. But it’s not mentioned in the musical itself.
But can I fault this paltry treatment of Kuti’s sexual politics—his ideas and actions concerning women and HIV/AIDS–on Jones or with Kuti himself? In video clips of Kuti and the Queens shown at the show the women are silent. In an interview with a British reporter Kuti said this about his views on the role of women and the reasons for it (all quotes below from the Guardian):
In songs such as ‘Lady’ and ‘Mattress’ the impression he gave was that women were inferior. ‘I’m not saying that women should not be political leaders,’ he said. ‘Women can do what they want – but once she’s married in Africa she can’t do anything against her husband’s will. If a woman doesn’t like a man she should find another – that’s why polygamy is so fantastic… An African man should not do anything called housework or cooking…’ But, Fela, cooking can be fun, I persisted. ‘I can cook, I had to as a student in London. But if I have a party and do cooking, people call me a ‘Less Man’. I don’t see why I should go against the cultural values of my people.’
At the same time, some people view Kuti marrying the Queens—whom he referred to as “courageous” and “witches”–as a radical act:
…to mark the anniversary of the pillage of Kalakuta [in 1978], he married 27 of his dancers simultaneously. Fela claimed this was a traditional Yoruba ceremony, although some priests disputed this, pointing out that no bride prices were paid, and there is a suggestion that some sort of immigration scam was also involved. It was certainly a fabulous publicity stunt, although as DJ Rita Ray, who now runs a Fela-inspired club called Shrine in London, points out, ‘Dancers weren’t held in high esteem, so his argument was that he was making them respectable. He was wild, but very progressive.’
Kuti’s views on sex may warm some Western sex-positive advocates’ hearts:
‘Sex is one of the most important things in life, man. It’s Christianity and Islam that have made sex immoral. People should be proud to say, “I had a fantastic fuck last night.” When a minister in Britain has an affair he loses his job. If a minister in Africa fucks 400 women no one will even notice him, you know.’
However, later in the article, the reporter stated Kuti thought AIDS was “’a white man’s disease’”:
Fela’s last song had been called ‘C.S.A.S (Condom Scallywag and Scatter )’, which described the use of condoms as ‘un- African’. To the end, Fela refused to be tested to determine the cause of his weight loss and skin lesions. After much discussion among the family after his death, his brother, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, publicly disclosed the cause, paradoxically enabling, as one commentator put it, ‘Aids awareness in Nigeria to leave the dark ages’. In that sense, Fela’s death helped save a lot of lives, although it’s impossible to know how many women he himself put in mortal danger by his wilful denial of his disease. Stein [Kuti’s manager] says ‘one or two women in Fela’s entourage became ill, though I don’t know whether it had anything to do with Fela. All the rest are still going strong, as I understand it. They say it was Aids. I say that he died of one beating too many. He was a giant of a man, but a man nevertheless.
Is, therefore, Jones simply offering facts about the role of women and HIV/AIDS in Kuti’s life, even the silences, in a musical form? Did Jones and his collaborators not want to deal with that part of Kuti’s life because they wanted to avoid negating Kuti’s radical socio-governmental politics with his own admitted refusal to use condoms and dependence on traditional African healing arts to handle his infection–thus risking having Kuti become an embodiment of the stereotype of the Ignorant and (Sexually) Irresponsible African? Did Jones and Co. not want to make judgments about Kuti’s treatment of women because they didn’t want to come from a self-congratulatory Western lens, knowing we in the West have our own effed-up polar-opposite constructs of “women” as either virgins or whores? Did the creators not want to offer an examination about Kuti dealing with HIV/AIDS when the disease–and people who live with it–are still stigmatized, even in some US communities? Would it have been such a disruption if the dancers, especially the Queens, spoke in their own behalf, especially talking about the time when military officials burned down the Shrine and raped and tortured some of them? (When this horror happens in the musical, it’s silent. The dancers are in spotlight, and the descriptions are beamed on the wall directly across from the audience.) Is there a way to offer a critique about Kuti without diminishing his contributions?
I can appreciate Jones and his collaborators for bringing Kuti’s life to the stage. I love Jones’ staging and choreography, in that genius alchemy of precision and chaos only he is capable of. Simultaneously, Fela! shortchanges the man whom it celebrates by giving two very important aspects of his life–the women and living with and dying from HIV/AIDS–the short shrift, if not the silent treatment.
Another revolution, perhaps?