After our trip to the Dia Museum, we got back to the City in time to catch "Fela!" on Broadway. We tried to fit it in during our last trip late last year, so we wanted to make sure not to miss this 11-time Tony nominated show this time around. I think it will pick up best musical on Sunday, but apparently it's running neck and neck with Green Day's "American Idiot" (oh, that title! )
When you enter the theater, you quickly realize that it has been transformed into a Nigerian nightclub. Afrobeat music plays as people take their seats or mingle over cocktails in the back of the house. There were a variety of relevant news articles which were flashing on the side walls to help set the scene. I quickly spotted a headline with BP, but the article switched before I could read it. Once again, I thought about our oil spill and wondered what Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician and cult icon, who is the subject of the play, had to say about oil in his country.
The music in this production is intoxicating; and the dancing, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, is high energy. But the most important part of the show is undoubtedly Fela himself. This is one of the most demanding roles I have ever seen on Broadway; in fact, I don't recall seeing Sahr Ngaujah, who is nominated for a Tony for this role, ever leave the stage. He is a true triple threat and is even capable of being airborne, as he demonstrated with a tremendous leap that I've only seen twenty-year-old dancers do.
That's the good news about the show, but the bad news is that much like Jesse St. James and the rest of Vocal Adrenalin (for those who watched the "Glee" finale), for all the talent of the cast, the show and sadly even Ngaujah lack "heart." I never felt emotionally immersed in the characters, although I did enjoy learning about Fela, from an historical perspective, given that he fully embraced and embodied the idea of art for social change.
In fact, he said in a 1981 documentary called "Music is a Weapon:"
"...my society is underdeveloped because of an alien system imposed on my people. So there's no music for enjoyment, for love, when there's such a struggle for people's existence. So, as an artist, politically, artistically, my whole idea about my environment must be represented in the music, in the arts. Music must awaken people to do their duty as citizens and act."
Fela's music was his very essence. He was a revolutionary, and the medium was the message. He used his music and his cult following to rise up against an oppressive government. His music was so incendiary, in fact, that he was enemy number one of the ruling elites. In Act 2, we learn that in one particular retaliatory attack, many of his 27 wives were raped, his fellow musicians were badly injured, and his beloved mother, a progressive leader of the women's movement and his muse, was tossed from a second story window and ultimately died.
In another scene, the dancers carry signs with the various companies that have raped and pillaged Nigeria -- De Beers, Shell, Monsanto, Halliburton, Merck, among others. Many of these names are all too familiar. So, this got me thinking, I wonder whether there are any cases where BP has wreaked the kind of havoc in Nigeria that it has in this country over the past 50 days.
I found an article in which a Nigerian national remarked that BP would consider the Deepwater Horizon spill "very minor by Nigerian standards" and that "generations in some areas have experienced the great outdoors as an oily mess." John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian stated of his experience visiting the Niger Delta, in an article dated May 30, 2010, "more oil is spilled from the delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico."
The locals regaled Vidal with stories of the "incessant" oil spills, and a Nigerian writer, Ben Ikari stated, "If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention. This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta." To them, BP is bending over backwards to accomodate the American people. Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth International told Vidal of the Nigerian people, "they are amazed that the president of the US can be making speeches daily, because in Nigeria people there would not hear a whimper."
Fela passed away in 1997, and perhaps his death has left a vacuum (although his son, Seun, is a musican and sings about similar themes and is a rising star in Nigeria). I wonder whether Fela was able to act as a bulwark protecting his people. I must admit that I have now learned that he is an iconic figure in the world of music, I was not familiar with his story until I read about the Broadway show. Even the Tony Awards on Sunday evening, which will feature a performance from the show as well as a good chance that the production will pick up some awards, will be another opportunity for people to learn about Fela and perhaps do a bit of their own research as well. For me, my desire to learn more about Fela has opened the door to discovering this disturbing information about oil spills in Nigeria. It is a warning that history is indeed repeating itself over and over again.
Although the Nigerians Vidal interviewed may feel that BP is doing more for us than they are for them, the company is a repeat offender and should be providing retributions in all places where they have caused environmental destruction. Judith Kimerling, a professor of law and policy at the City of New York and author of Amazon Crude stated (in Vidal's article) of BP, "they are now clearly a danger to the planet. The dangers of this happening again and again are high."
Fela's legacy lives on on the Broadway stage, and he can continue to educate us. He is inspiring a whole new audience of theatergoers to discover his music and his message. The question is who will take on the mantle to use their art or music to try to work toward the change we desperately need right now?