Two and a half years ago, Fela! opened on Broadway. In New York at the time, my meager grad-student/intern status prevented me from snapping up a special preview price ticket to see it. The buzz about Fela! built for quite some time with Jay-Z and Jada Pinkett-Smith backing the production and Bill T. Jones directing and choreographing it. Both Fela and his music were before my time – “FELA! tells the true story of the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, whose soulful Afrobeat rhythms ignited a generation. Motivated by his mother, a civil rights champion, he defied a corrupt and oppressive military government and devoted his life and music to the struggle for freedom and human dignity,” but with everyone going nuts about it, the disappointing reality of being flat-broke really stung.
I’m back in New York after bouncing between Boston and Miami, and you know what? Fela! returned to NYC as well for a limited run.
Even though I’m actually employed now and not completely broke this time around, I received comp tickets through a work colleague. OH, SNAP!
The second night of opening week, I eagerly headed uptown to collect my tickets at Will Call. I’m one of those over-anxious people who must have the tickets in-hand to know that they actually exist. My anxiety caused me to be rather early (for the second or third time in my life) and to avoid the heat I walked into a bar around the corner. They had a great $5 Happy Hour going, so I found myself a seat at the bar and enjoyed the AC with a nice glass of Chardonnay. Apparently, other patrons had the same idea as we realized we were all seeing the same show. We chatted down the row about Fela’s music, the show’s history, and our travels to see the show. I soon realized that this place had a $20 minimum for credit cards and of course I didn’t have cash, so…another round!
By the time I left the bar to meet my friend, I found myself in a “happy” place.
We took our seats high up in the mezzanine; taking in the eager hum of the crowd. Performers and musicians wandered around on stage. The set took on the appearance of one of Fela’s regular places to perform, the Shrine. “Fela” opened the show, chatting up the crowd with a few questions:
“Anyone ever been involved with the police?”
“Ever put in handcuffs?”
“Ever actually arrested?”
A lot of people answered in the affirmative; which Fela took to mean we would be a fun crowd. Those around me seemed really familiar with his music, singing and swaying along. The production beautifully highlighted the party dynamic, but as I told a coworker, “I felt like I was watching the party when I wanted to be at the party.” This same coworker attended the next night but with orchestra seats, where apparently it “feels like you’re at the party.” Good for her.
Two and a half hours is a long time to be an outsider at a party – which is how my friend and I both felt.
Bill T. packed the dancing in; the content exudes glorious pelvic isolation and rippling undulations of the torso. The dancers are constantly on the move, yet the movement is luxuriously steady. The powerful history of the movement ascends atop the meticulous layers of cultural and concert dance. Fela told his story largely through music and movement, with only a a few monologues connecting the narrative.
I can’t believe I actually I saw Fela! Even though I didn’t become totally immersed into Fela’s world that evening, I understand how many were. In a small way, I feel that destiny serendipitously won out for me. Three years ago, I couldn’t scrape up $60 to see the show. It totally bummed me out. And yet, I finally saw the show…for free.