Can you watch a show about a man with 27 wives and not think it's sexist? You can if it's Fela!
Several weeks ago, I went to see Fela!, the Broadway show based on the life of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Today, a smattering of stories about Fela — and the women in his life — have hit the web. While there's no doubt that Fela is the star of the show, there would be no story without the women surrounding him in life - and onstage.
The show's director and choreographer, famed dancer Bill T. Jones, "streamlined" the story (set in the 1970s in the Shrine, Fela's club in Lagos, Nigeria) so that there are 9 wives instead of 27.
Felicia R. Lee writes, in today's New York Times:
Fela's collective marriage in 1978 to the women - many of whom had been teenagers when they first came to the Shrine and then his home to escape their families or find personal fulfillment - takes only a few minutes onstage. Fela says to the assembled women, "Will you marry me?," and they respond, "Yeah, yeah."
What the audience might not know is that the marriage - often described in prurient terms by the news media over the years - had been publicly described by Fela as a gesture of political solidarity and emotional support for his women after a devastating 1977 raid on his compound in Lagos, called Kalakuta.
Here's the thing about the women playing the wives, called queens: They are some of the most incredible dancers you have ever seen. Lithe, agile, unbelievably strong, muscled and fierce. Their costumes — halter and bra tops paired with tiny skirts and amazing leather leg braces — accentuate the physiques of the cast. ("We made a decision early on that recreating 1970s costume was not that interesting," set and costume designer Marina Draghici tells the Times' Guy Trebay.)
One of the most powerful characters in the show is Fela's mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, who, in real life, was a teacher, political campaigner, and women's rights activist. She was dubbed "The Mother of Africa" and was the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria and the first African woman to visit Communist China. In the show, she is presented as being so regal, so powerful, so other-worldly and wise, that she's basically a goddess.
Though the show Fela! doesn't marginalize or dismiss its female characters with condescension or ire, a newly re-released biography of the singer and activist shows that real life was not so rich. In August, reviewing Carlos Moore's Fela: This Bitch of a Life, Sam Baldwin of Mother Jones wrote: "Sexism, sadly, is what comes through most strongly."
Still, in the stage production, the ladies surrounding Fela feel less like concubines and more like a family. And the women playing these characters do not see themselves as mere accessories. From the Times:
Afi McClendon, who plays Ihase, the youngest-looking, smallest queen, said she saw the women as rebels. "In this day and age, feminine energy is so understated," Ms. McClendon said as she got into her makeup for a show. "They were women who had the courage to define themselves as individuals in a society that was so corrupt and did not allow them to be the individuals that they were."
Finding Depth In Fela's Women [NY Times]
A Wizard Who Works With Color and Pattern [NY Times]
Show About Afrobeat's Fela Tests Broadway's Tastes [Reuters]
Fela Kuti, Afrobeat's King of Pain [Utne Reader]
Music Monday: Fela Kuti's Bitch of a Life [Mother Jones]