Legendary Choreographer Nabs Tony Award For ‘Fela!’
TONY COX, host:
I'm Tony Cox, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
The stars were out in full force last week for Broadway's biggest night, the Tony Awards. And this year, among the winners was a musical about the late Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti.
(Soundbite of musical, "Fela")
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) This story, I want to tell you a story about how things are. This story, I want to tell you a story about how things are. Oh, oh, oh. One day...
COX: "Fela," the musical, tells the story of Fela Kuti. He was known as the father of Afrobeat. The production also depicts his legacy as a human rights activist, even as he defied an oppressive government. Fela Kuti died in 1997 from AIDS related illnesses.
Here to talk about "Fela," the musical and the musician is award-winning choreographer and director Bill T. Jones. He won a Tony this year for his work on "Fela." Mr. Jones, welcome to the show.
Mr. BILL T. JONES (Choreographer and Director, "Fela"): It's good to be here.
COX: Thank you very much and congratulations, first off. This is Tony number two, isn't it?
Mr. JONES: Yes, it is. It is.
COX: As I mentioned, we know that he was a fabulous musician, and he was also an activist. What makes his legacy so important?
Mr. JONES: Well, first, I would say that he didn't only sing about the oppressed, he actually lived with them. He never left that particular community. And he paid the price. He was jailed 200 times, had (unintelligible) bones broken in his body. And he had a very, very important person in his life, his mother, met with a horrible end because of his activism.
I think that already that says something about his commitment. That it's not just a sound bite. It's not just a career opportunity. He truly had principles. He was a wild man. He was crazy in many ways, but he stood his ground.
COX: Well, how then do you take that story and put it on stage and transmit and transfer to the audience that feeling of who he was?
Mr. JONES: Trial and error. Trial and error.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JONES: Well, the first thing is reading everything I could about him. Two great books, I guess I can say it, "This Bitch of a Life" by Carlos Moore and another one by Michael Veal. Both are very informative, very researched. And then listening to his music and meeting people who have dedicated their lives with music.
And then we tried different texts. We tried putting the emphasis on different aspects of his life. Was it the psychological, Freudian one of his mother and father? Was it him as an activist? We finally settled on a two-hour evening as our device. So the audience feels that they're coming in to a concert, but this is a concert like you've never seen before because he begins to literally hallucinate on stage. No one else in his fictitious audience can see it, but we can.
COX: In the two hours that you have with the musical production, is there a song that particularly stands out as one that tells the story of Fela Kuti?
Mr. JONES: Well, I think his take on "Zombie." "Zombie" was a song that, you know, it was a hit in clubs all over the world, but it was also a song that got the market men, women, students, even some people in the military to thinking and, in fact, acting. It would use this song to taunt the soldiers. They would use this song to, as he says in our show, to strike back. This song of course brought the authorities down on him even more extremely because it was so virulent and so pointed.
So that song and the way it's delivered, almost Brechtian, for your theater listeners out there, he's singing about something that is very, very serious and dark, but it's sarcastic. And you can dance to it. But that was his secret, Fela Kuti.
COX: Let's listen to a clip of "Zombie" from the musical "Fela."
(Soundbite of musical, "Fela")
(Soundbite of song, "Zombie")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Fall down, get ready, halt. Some boys stand like this all day on the street corner until the army recruiter sees them and says, oh zombie. Quick march. Slow march. Left turn. Right turn. About turn. Double up. Salute. Open your hat. Stand at ease. Fall in. Fall out. Fall down. Get ready. Quick march. Slow march. Left turn. Right turn. About turn. Double up. Salute. Open your hat. Stand at east. Fall in. Fall out. Fall down. Get ready. Halt. Zombie wey na one way, jara, joro. Zombie wey na one way. Joro, jara, joro.
COX: Listening to that song, what was the audience's reaction to it? And was it what you had expected?
Mr. JONES: People, first of all, they really loved the spectacle. The choreography is it's very exciting there. We get to see the men and the women goose stepping in a kind of a jocular fashion. But then when you think about what this song actually costs him, and how it could mean one thing in the U.S. and in Europe, and another thing in Africa right literally in the fray, I think people are kind of a little stunned.
They always give us a rousing applause after that. But I think the show has many moments like that where people are left wanting to dance, but also feeling that there's something important that goes on in this world with people like Fela, and we need more of them.
COX: There are economic realities affecting theater and dance and yet for this production you had some very deep pocket, big name backers. I'm talking about Shawn Jay-Z Carter, for example, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. How did they get involved and what was their role beyond providing financial support?
Mr. JONES: Well, after our lead producer Steve Hendel and his whole crew got us going, we were able to after three workshops, maybe four workshops, to actually get our nerve up and say, we're going to put this thing up Off Broadway and see if it flies. We did.
The wonderful Questlove of The Roots came to see the show and really responded. He sent out an email blast. And, you know, when he speaks, he's a man that really, has a really credibility of the music world. When he took a listen, and I think Jay-Z is a friend of his, so Jay-Z got this email. Jay-Z came with his wife Beyonce, which already gave us a chill. It was wonderful to have those kind of people in the audience. And I understand that Jay-Z sent the DVD to Will Smith, and Will and Jada came on board. That's how it was done.
But everybody has had this kind of giddy anticipation that they were doing something that had some specialness to it. And we have to thank Steve Hendel first. But Questlove opened the door to those icons, those men, Jay-Z and Will and Jada.
COX: You know, this 2010 has been a good year for you. Besides winning the Tony, something else important happened I want to ask you about and what it bodes for the future for you professionally and personally, and that's the merger with the dance theater workshop. I don't know what the stage of that is at the moment.
Mr. JONES: Yes. You and your producers have been doing your homework. Well, I can say that we are still in a discussion phase. We have written a document stating what everyone's intentions are that I would be the legacy artist, that certain board members and so on and so forth.
But it's not a binding agreement yet. We all have our the best intentions and our fingers are crossed. Both organizations have been meeting intensively now for almost a year, talking honestly, you know, when you talk about money, those things are very hard hitting.
So we are not yet at the altar, but we have made the correct overtures, let's put it that way and everybody's moving forward in good faith.
COX: Here's my final question for you. Given the high of just mounting "Fela" and doing it successfully and then the added bonus of winning a Tony award on top of that...
Mr. JONES: And having 11 nominations we had.
COX: And 11 nominations on top of that. Does that mean that the next project that you do is one that there is more pressure to do because of your success with "Fela" or how do you go forward when you've come off a high like that?
Mr. JONES: Well, it makes me slow down. I have to slow down and I have to think in a lot of different levels. First of all, my company stays close to me like my family, like my child. The next project has got to be something that I feel that I could really do with a kind of honesty that I did was able to bring what I know of the downtown avant-garde world of performance art and Broadway together, and that was "Fela."
What is the next one? What would the music be? There are certain things on the table right now. It would not make sense for me to mention right now. But just say that they will be heavily music driven. I do like the fact that the strong central character who has something he's struggling with but gives us plenty of room to have fantasy, fantasy and wonderful movement, wonderful singing. That is the formula going forward. He's got to start in a safe environment. He's got to start somewhere where I could try all sorts of things and fail.
And then we will take our turn of approaching the great, white way. And maybe it's not even for the great white way, maybe it's for another audience, another venue. That we found out with "Fela" as we made it, and I anticipate the next work. Let's call it work X will have the same kind of trajectory and care.
COX: Only Bill T. Jones could actually come up with work X and that might end up being the title of it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: You just never know, do you?
Mr. JONES: Oh, no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JONES: It's been amazing conversation on a lot of levels, I wouldn't be surprised.
COX: Bill T. Jones is the 2010 Tony Award-winning choreographer and director of "Fela," a musical about the life of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti. He joined us from New Mexico. Bill T., once again, congratulations and thank you.
Mr. JONES: Thank you so much, it's a pleasure talking to you. Bye bye now.
COX: All right, bye bye.
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