News and Features

Review: “Fela!” at the AT&T Performing Arts Center

Michelle Williams (left) and Adesola Osakalumi in Fela!

Fela! the touring musical at the Winspear Opera House, is about Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the larger-than-life Nigerian firebrand and musician who galvanized politics in Africa and music around the world. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says Fela! is a show about politics, music and dance. But mostly music and dance.

  • Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
  • KERA radio review:
  • Expanded online review:

In 1977, Fela Anikulapo Kuti released his landmark album, Zombie. The title track was a monster, worldwide hit. In Africa, it was prized because it bitterly mocked the military that ran Nigeria. Everywhere else people loved it because, well, if you’ve ever heard it, you know. Fela’s Afrobeat music fused jazz and funk and Yoruban chants — plus his confrontational politics — and created a propulsive force that swept people on to the dance floor. Or into protest movements.

Famous musicians taking outspoken stands are nothing new. But the sheer scope of Fela’s achievements in infectious music and rebellious politics makes him hard to compress into a stage show. It’s as if Malcolm X — in addition to his entire civil rights struggle – had a side gig, leading a hot dance band that revolutionized American rhythm-and-blues.

The great choreographer Bill T. Jones directed and choreographed Fela!, the Broadway musical currently on a world tour that’s camped out at the Winspear. To convey Fela’s life, music and political activism, Jones focused mostly on sensation. He created a tidal wave of high-energy music, video splash and sexual, hip-grinding dance. Fela! is akin to an extended dance revue — with the ecstatic jam-and-dance grooves broken up by vehement preaching from the stage and the occasional operatic duets between Fela and his adored activist-mother or between Fela and his African-American lover, Sandra Isadore, who exposed him to Black Power politics in the ’60s. Surfing this wave in the title role is the mesmerizing, ingratiating performer, Adesola Osakalumi, who understudied the role on Broadway. As Fela’s mother, Melanie Marshall has an unbelievable singing voice — part-gospel, part-opera, part-Meredith Monk-style avant-garde keening.

As a result, as a stage biography, Fela! is high on sonic and visual impact, low on details (it scants some of Fela’s more unappealing attributes, for example – mentioning his polygamous marriages but not the way he more or less discarded women). What Fela! has never really had is a fully coherent, satisfying story. It’s set in 1977 — the year of Zombie — and we’re in the ‘Shrine,’ Fela’s nightclub-cum-compound in Nigeria. Fela picked up teaching from both his mother and his preacher-father, so he teaches us about Afrobeat music and about his life. But after Zombie comes out, the Nigerian military burn Fela’s nightclub, beat him and kill his mother. And that’s when things get fuzzy-mythic. The issue is whether he should abandon Nigeria or not. But even after he decides (does he?), the significance of his decision is never made apparent. What good did it do? Did he squander the rest of his life in self-indulgence (he died of AIDS in 1997)? It’d be hard to find anything like a clear answer.

The show’s profanity and its in-your-face politics about smoking dope or defying American corporations may be too much for some (see the Dallas Morning News review). But for a tour, this is a thunderous production — with a band and dancers and a praise singer (Ismael Kouyate) equal to the National Theatre show in London. In fact, it’s a testament to how powerful the tour is that Michelle Williams, who plays Sandra Isadore, is pretty much overshadowed. She may well be the chief reason some ticket-buyers are coming to see Fela!; she was one-third of Destiny’s Child, after all. But Williams barely makes a dent in this jumping, undulating wall of music and dance.