Any show that can get a theatre full of Londoners dancing in the aisles has got to be something special and I was not alone in being moved by FELA!

Directed by Bill T. Jones, FELA! tells the story of Nigerian activist and father of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, through a vibrant mix of dance, theatre and African rhythms. 

…we’re in the club with Fela and his many wives shaking their “moneymakers”.

This is a depiction of African life that is fun but not facile, critical but not without hope. As Fela (Sahr Ngaujah) narrates a lifetime of partying and politics, the show deals with corruption, poverty, black power, colonialism, independence – true to Nigeria’s postcolonial history, there is no simple problem or simple solution.

The production is heavily influenced by Wole Soyinka’s Africanised take on Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. A scene in which frenzied song and dance is counterpointed with captions describing military rape and torture sent a chill straight to my soul. Seconds later, we’re back in the club with Fela and his many wives shaking their “moneymakers”. A more naturalist narrative could never capture the horror of this reality.

…the stage fills with people singing and dancing defiantly.

The show really comes alive when it focuses on the difficult political issues. For this reason I could have done with less of the partying and a bit more of the politics – the first half (a lengthy 90 minutes) could have cut to the chase a little faster.

Though the play largely deals with 60s and 70s political action, the final scene pointedly speaks to our times. Following the death of Fela’s mother at the hands of the military, the stage fills with people singing and dancing defiantly. They carry coffins painted both with slogans representing Nigeria’s troubled past (Funmilayo, British Empire, Oil) and those that sting in 21st century London: Stephen Lawrence, RBS, Stop Cuts.

I’ve never smiled so hard at the theatre, nor cringed less at audience participation. 

FELA! is a serious play that somehow also manages to be a feel-good play. I’ve never smiled so hard at the theatre, nor cringed less at audience participation. In fact, I was just disgruntled that that the cramped seats left me inadequate booty-shaking space.

The show is worth seeing as a visual feast alone – the entire theatre is adorned with street painting, posters and projection screens, the costumes are Iyaloja meets Josephine Baker as imagined by Rihanna, the choreography combines erotic abandon with acrobatic poise and there are whip-my-hair moments to make Willow Smith blush.

FELA! runs at Sadler’s Wells until 28 August.

Tickets from £15

4 Stars 

 

About The Author

Maria Hannah is a freelance journalist, soon to be studying MA Magazine Journalism at City University. She writes about politics and pop culture from a postcolonial feminist perspective.

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