A few months ago, we had the good fortune to see Book of Mormon, the highly lauded satirical Broadway production by the producers of South Park. It took me a few minutes into the opening song, Hello!, to realize that I was sitting in the same theater — the Eugene O’Neill Theater — where I had seen the electric FELA!
The experience of FELA! was quite different. When you walked into the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to see FELA!, you immediately entered The Shrine, the setting for dramatizing the life of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti.
Here is my piece on hair styling in FELA! for Stylebell:
As I enjoyed Book of Mormon in the same, but altered space, I wondered at the juxtaposition between the satirical Uganda of that musical and the sociopolitically charged Nigeria of Bill T. Jones’ production. Between the numbers “I am Africa” and “Water Get No Enemy.” If we consider these two musicals along with the spectacular Lion King , we have an interesting trio of Broadway shows that all stage Africa, each in very distinct ways.
While Book of Mormon and Lion King are by all accounts successful Broadway musicals, audiences aren’t always sure about what to do with FELA! Some feel that the Afrobeats, gyrating dance moves, and storyline are more in keeping with an African heritage festival than with Broadway.
Yet this sentiment highlights the important ways that FELA! is revising what is possible on Broadway. This musical suggests that, if different styles of music, dance, and storytelling can thrive on Broadway’s stages, so too can a different set of dancers, actors, writers, and producers.
Much like Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, FELA! is a problem musical for Broadway. It stages a disruption of sorts, challenging audiences to listen differently for new possibilities. It complicates and stretches notions of what stands as a musical, who can perform in musicals, and what may be portrayed in musicals.
Perhaps the question to consider now is what doesn’t Broadway fit into?