I was told this blog post deserved a larger (Nigerian) audience – cross-posted here
NYT theater critic, Charles Isherwood, fires the first volley in the Fela! backlash, and I must say about time too; like a Barack Obama inevitably losing some luster, i thought the backlash against Fela! was also inevitable; the more rave reviews a musical about a radical Nigerian musician garnered, the more its Bradjelina-adopted-African-orphan existence on Broadway became a “big girl now” and, alas, its protective skin of white guilt/political correctness begins to peel.
For covering fire for his contrarian mad dash, Isherwood hijacks a line from David Mamet’s problematic–check Alyssa’s review–new play, Race – “I know there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” and that said, apart from Isherwood’s concerns about the whole disneyficationof Fela’s milieu, taking a pair of scissors to the article, Isherwood’s bone of racial contention seems to be:
…the emphasis in “Fela!” on the spectacle of African culture tilted the show a little too closely toward minstrelsy. It evoked an unsettling feeling I can’t say I ever had before at the theater…. In contrast with characters in recent plays like Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” and Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed” — both of which explore the hard experience of African women by depicting fully developed lives caught in trying, sometimes terrible circumstances — the women of “Fela!” are largely festive window dressing.
Attired in eye-catching, vibrantly colored, flesh-baring ensembles, with their faces painted, they strut around the stage and the theater looking exotic, imperious and sexy. So too do the male members of the ensemble, who also bare a lot of flesh but have little to do other than sing and dance.
Hence my discomfort. The presentation of African culture as a feast of exotic pageantry has the potential, at least, to reinforce stereotypes of African people as primitive and unsophisticated, albeit endowed with astounding aptitudes for song and dance. Although some of the dancers have individual moments, none are given individual voices; sometimes they simply drape the stage like gaudy décor. And the way the dancers weave in and out of the audience repeatedly seems ingratiating, a sort of seduction that almost sexualizes the performers… In frolicking so exuberantly among the theatergoers, “Fela!” sometimes seems to turn its ostensible characters into flashy sideshow entertainments, to elevate sensation over substance.
Readers threw 108 comments back at him along with an invaluable window, for me at least, on everything I find fascinating about the tangled web of ideology, rationality and representation. But before getting into that, as a Nigerian (who through Fela’s lifetime only visited the Shrine once and on a night Fela didn’t even play) my prior analysis on the musical (which I saw in Dec ’09) is here and it squashes as well as preserves some of what Isherwood just said. Scanning the litany of comments, the closest thing to the position I’d take on the issues of representation raised in Fela! is echoed by commenter 95, who spits this:
Fela was such a complicated and in many ways deeply misguided individual it is very hard to conceive of a Bway show approaching his story in anything but the most superficial way. The feel-good African exuberance that seems to dominate the show is something that could be re-created on a Bway stage, but it reflects only one side of Fela and that side only partially. It is wrong to fault the show for turning Fela into a fetishist, because, he himself was a fetishist who turned himself into a fetish. There was undoubtedly authenticity and enormous courage in that, and brilliant musical innovation, but there was not much in the way of engagement with the real problems of Nigerians–at home or in the world.
That comment goes with the below excerpt of my thoughts after viewing Fela Kuti – In Concert and the documentary Femi Kuti: Live at the Shrine:
The Shrine in its present reincarnation feels like a self watering flower pot for growing the good ganja that is Afro-beat music and the concessions its political dimension has to make to the patriarchal, bottom barrel, mass consumerist leanings of free market economics is already constructed into the music and embedded in its imagery. Fela’s genius was his ability to smuggle all of life’s frustrations, a political agenda, and, most importantly, a potent patriarchal and sexual iconography under the body paint and masks of negritude and Africanism. The sexual and the political are therefore co-dependent forces in Fela’s brand of Afrobeat – and Femi’s too.
In other words, what Isherwood misconstrues as signifiers of the primitive, the hypersexualization of the performers, the spilling of the performance off the stage and into the audience (no doubt something Bill T Jones thought would substitute for the call and response dynamic in Fela’s music) and the overall seduction of Fela! wasn’t all invented by Bill T Jones and co, but are all aspects of the Africanist politics, beliefs and iconography via which Fela frees himself from middle class values to embrace patriarchy, turn his female dancers literally into brides or priestesses of an Orisha, creating a context in which they are the objectified fixtures of that Orisha’s shrine (the Orisha in this case being the spirit of Fela’s dead mother I would imagine) and within which the their objectification is “permitted” and their sexualization merely a by product.
All the above results in an overall seduction that’s uniquely Fela’s own brew and he used it to fuel Afrobeat’s engine and mass appeal. Call it Fela-economics. That said, Isherwood can be forgiven for not knowing how deeply embedded Africanist trappings and the fusion of Yoruba deification turned sexuality are in Fela’s milieu, but he shouldn’t be forgiven for staying in the evaluative box that refuses to see Fela, as one would any other Western artist, as intuiting his own business model and simply being a business man. In other words, Isherwood is not wrong for imposing a Western framework on Fela! He just imposes the wrong one.
Out of the 180 sticks and stones thrown at Isherwood, these pile stand out. In reaction to Isherwood’s assumption that the musical should be substantial in addressing Africa, commenter 38 fires:
The play has no obligation to speak for all of African culture–can’t be done, and no one should expect it to. “Fela” is a portrait of a particular figure, a Nigerian musician whose shows were known for their spectacle. As a devotee of Fela’s music for 25 years, I found the portrait of him to be faithful and well-researched. The play captured magnificently the excitement, aura, spectacle, and delicious grooves of a Fela show. Would Mr. Isherwood fret about “Mamma Mia” misrepresenting “Scandinavian culture”? Of course not–everyone knows that play is just entertainment on Broadway, as is “Fela.”
…or substantial in the vein of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” or Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed,” commenter 83:
My question is why would ‘Ruined’ be your inspiration for going to see FELA!? There is no logical connection…unless Africa is one undifferentiated mass to you. Would you go see a musical set in France just because you’d seen a play set in England? People need to interrogate their own (mis)understandings of the continent instead of blaming a brilliant musical production because it didn’t serve up their one-size-fits-all vision of Africa and Africans!
In addition, commenter 100 thinks Isherwood is asking too much of this musical:
Of course Broadway isn’t going to give genuine Nigerian culture an outing. That’s not what it’s there for. Broadway gives Broadway entertainment under the thin guise of a window into something else. Was The King and I remotely accurate about Siamese culture or history? (Music: Rodgers, choreography: Robbins) Was there anyone in New York who knew that country at all, and knew how phony it all was? Phony but wonderful. Sixty years later, Thailand is a major tourist destination and Thai restaurants are all over the city and the land. The show helped to make Americans curious. Fela may do the same vis-a-vis Nigeria or even the impossible complexities of enormous Africa… Broadway chews up other cultures and spits them out, the way birds chew the food they bring home to nourish their young. The other cultures are not hurt by this – the taste arouses an appetite for more.
Commenter 34 couldn’t shake the feeling of “cultural tourism” in attending FELA! and suspected what provoked Isherwood’s reaction was the “somewhat puzzled look on a sea of upturned white faces … as if neo-colonialism was happening…” Commenter 43sees the term “minstrelsy” as the only frame of reference Isherwood could use to explain his discomfort with seeing an unapologetic black sensuality – “… the players on stage are commanding and in command of their sensuality — not shuckin’ and steppin’ as minstrelsy would imply.” Commenter 94 brings it home:
I am sick and tired though of hearing white people tell me how to behave “properly” so as not to reinforce stereotypes. In Nigeria, women dance by shaking their back-sides, sorry if it makes some middle-aged white man uncomfortable, but that’s just how we do it….I don’t complain when I see white people line dancing!
Commenter 57, who worked with Fela in the 80s, speaks of a “mother-fucker Fela,” but it is commenter 89 who mentions the other radicals in the Anikulapo clan that deserve a mention, if not a Broadway musical of their own:
Fact is, in the world we are today, Nigeria is really too far away from America for a serious and commercially successful treatment of the kind of issues the reviewer seems to be looking for in America. Fela was really just an anti-authoritarian and a magnet for the young and restless, but putting him up in too much a serious way as some sort of human rights hero would be a bit much. I mean, in real life Fela had two siblings, Olikoye and Beko. Olikoye was a Professor of Pedriatrics who did excellent work in public health education and public health administration. Beko was also a medical doctor who was a REAL leader in human rights issues throughout most of his adult life. None of these guys married 27 wives. They were disciplined and worked SERIOUSLY the way an ACLU guy or an AMA guy would work. Beko went to prison for his opposition to governments probably as much as Fela did. If someone was doing “serious” work on the topic, they would have to include these gentlemen (since Fela’s mother came into the show). But that is a lot of serious work. For a lot less money. And much smaller audience. So, just enjoy it show. It’s a musical.
And, hmmm…, commenter 102 thinks, perhaps, Isherwood and NYT are up to something:
It seemed VERY peculiar to me that the Times, more than two months after the opening of “Fela!,” felt the need to provide revisionist “balance” to all the praise the show has justly received. It’s almost as though the paper wants to provide cover for reactionary theatergoers (and Tony voters) who don’t want any challenges to their conventional notions of what a Broadway musical can and should be. I sure can’t remember any reviews expressing retroactive misgivings about, say, “Billy Elliot” a couple of months into its run.