NEAL CONAN, host: The Broadway smash and Tony winner "Fela!" kicks off a national tour at the Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington, D.C. The show tells the story of the great Nigerian musician and political agitator, Fela Kuti.
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FELA KUTI: I am Fela Anikulapo Kuti, he who carries death in his pouch, who no mortal can ever kill. Tonight, let's turn Nigeria upside down. The police will try and shoot me down, but the government won't dare come near me. I am the law and will do what I please. So, yeah, man, make me your next black president. (Speaking foreign language)
CONAN: As on Broadway, the show is directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, who got another Tony last year for "Spring Awakening." If you'd like to talk with Bill T. Jones about Fela or his other work, give us a call, 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Bill. T. Jones joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back.
BILL T. JONES: It's great to be back.
CONAN: And you're credited not just as the director and choreographer. You helped write the book. You're listed as one of those who conceived of this show. Why was this project so important to you?
JONES: Well, first of all, I got the religion of it from Stephen Hendel, a wonderful man and our lead producer, who fell in love with Fela's music 10 years ago. I knew the music from the '70s, but I was brought closer to it by Steve Hendel, who was convinced that I was the one to bring it into life. And once he worked his magic on me, I began to read about Fela, listen to the music with a new sort of point of view. And I fell in love with the idea, and it's been quite an adventure.
CONAN: There is also - part of it, you get to do a really big show on Broadway.
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JONES: Yes, I guess so. All right. Yeah, yeah. Well, that was pretty exciting. But as you know, I come from a - the kind of experimental world of modern dancing. We were allergic to Broadway, or so we thought. It was too much about commerce, so we thought. It was too much about the every man's opinion. And we were bit - a bit of a snob, so to speak. But working with wonderful people there - there are many talented people, starting with Steve Hendel - and their kind of openness and curiosity about what the stage can do and what popular theater can be, I thought I had a lot to learn, which I did, and I'm so glad I did.
CONAN: Was there a moment, though, when you said, I should have never ever dipped my toe into this nasty business?
JONES: Oh, at least once a day, you know?
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JONES: Some of it is just a response to being afraid. You know, I don't - I'm going to fail. I don't know how to do this. No. Nobody ever twisted my arm behind my back and - or - I had no cigar-chomping executives standing around me saying, you've got to do this. No, no, no, no. Matter of fact, the people I work with were saying, Bill, we just want you to bring what you do. And they really were very supportive. Steve was a wonderful producer, and I'm really grateful. And meeting Sahr Ngaujah. It was the first time I had ever seen a person confronted with a task like bringing Fela to life and saying, you know, this guy, I think he was born to do this role. And I was right.
CONAN: He is astonishing. I have to say that. You know that better than I do, but I...
JONES: Well, isn't he, though? Yes.
CONAN: He channels - it's hard to imagine. I know that somebody else does it because it's too exhausting, but it's hard to imagine anybody else doing it.
JONES: Well - and we've been blessed now with at least four first-rate Felas. Kevin Mambo on Broadway was revelatory. We have a young British actor, Rolan - and Rolan - I forget it. I'm sorry. Forgive me, but I've forgotten Rolan's last name, but I don't forget the man. And Adesola. All of them have been wonderful, but Sahr created the thing literally out of himself, out of his experiences, growing up with the music, being Sierra Leonean, African, and an American at the same time. He had a particular understanding of how to translate it. The man is very sincere. He knows his music very, very well. It was a real blessing. And to be working with the great Antibalas, which is one of the original Fela revival bands, that they're really connoisseurs of this music and they love it and they're very meticulous - that was a great gift to the show as well.
CONAN: For those who haven't seen it, the setting is the last concert in Fela's nightclub in Lagos, in a very dangerous neighborhood in Lagos, as he tells us. And this is, well, for various reasons, I won't go into it. You take the extraordinary chance, though, I thought, as a director. We see the person impersonating Fela. We also, at the same time, see footage, film, of Fela himself doing the exact same thing.
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JONES: Well, no. I'm not quite sure what you're referring to. There are - there is one place wherein we see a photo of Fela with his arms raised, and we see Sahr(ph) stand in front. But for the most part, what we see - that footage is so well done by Peter Nigrini, who was our video designer, that what you see is either Sar or Ade actually doing it, but shot in the style of that time. So I think that was a bit of an illusion because there is really no actual footage of Fela other than, as I said, one place where he is photographed with his arms raised.
CONAN: Well, you fooled me. So I take back all my praise.
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CONAN: Anyway, I'm outraged. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Bill T. Jones. By the way, you're dancing tomorrow night.
JONES: Oh, my God. Word travels, doesn't it? Yes. I - our company opened at the brand-new New York Live Arts with a group of works from the 1970s and '80s, duets that my former founder, Arnie Zane, and I made. And I decided to do for the opening night, the gala, one of my favorite things, which is to recite the poetry of Dylan Thomas and a dance that I well, referencing a dance that I made in '96. I'm retired, but I came back to dance that night. It went so well and I felt so good doing it that someone said to me, why don't you do it again on Thursday night and let's videotape it, which is what I'm going to be doing. So, yes, the bones and the old bones will be out there rattling around and intoning the long-legged bait of Dylan Thomas in a piece called "Another Ballad."
CONAN: Talk about being scared.
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CONAN: A little nervous. Anyway, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Fernie(ph) , is that right? Femie(ph)?
CONAN: From Columbia, South Carolina. Go ahead, please.
FEMIE: I want to thank you, Mr. Jones, for introducing Fela to the American public. He was here in 1986, because I visited him in prison in 1985 in Benin. Fela and I had been friends since 1966. And to have a voice like Fela is to have what is going on in the Middle East today. If there was a tweeting and everything in Fela's time, there would have been changes in Nigeria. Fela was one man who stood up for all the poor people of Nigeria.
And The Shrine, many people say, is dangerous. No. Those of us who visited The Shrine, who have been going to The Shrine forever, that's not a dangerous place. That's the safest place, actually, when Fela was alive, because he didn't tolerate nonsense.
JONES: Well, now, sir, may I say, I really appreciate what you're saying, and it has truly been an honor to bring Fela Kuti to a new generation of people. But to be sure, Fela attracted me because he was so complex and so imperfect. The fact is, he was, first and foremost, a self-referencing artist. The whole world revolved around Fela, in his way of thinking. Now, part of that world was his intense pride in being Nigerian and his anger at those dictators. But Fela was not an easy man.
He was not - I think that his political viewpoint - I wonder if Fela could have followed through on being - he ran for president. Did he have the sort of patience and the kind of overall view to really be a president? Or was he the sort that really raises the tough questions, which I think he was? Was he the sort that really encourages other people maybe more temperamentally suited to go in pursuit of a life in politics? I know he was that. Did he leave us wonderful music that combined a kind of social consciousness with some of the things we love most about infectious music coming from the experience of the people? He certainly did that.
And I'm so proud to be able to take on his legend. But he was poetic for me. And I sometimes call him what I call a sacred monster. No society should be without such a person who asks difficult questions, and those are questions that, well, how women worked in his life, his whole notion about authority. Fela thought being an authentic African man was something that Africans should have, but I don't think Fela was the chief priest. He was not one of those who served. He was on top. There were a lot of - that's what made him interesting. There was a lot of ambiguity in him. But I appreciate very much your comment.
FEMIE: When are you coming South, so those of us in the South can see the play?
JONES: You know, we're coming to Atlanta, Georgia, where - that's our next stop. Look at - go online, "Fela!" on tour. And we're going to be playing in Atlanta. That's our next stop. And I'm so glad you asked me that question. Please, go see it.
FEMIE: Oh, you're going to have a lot of Nigerians in Atlanta. And all of us in the Southeast is coming to Atlanta to see "Fela!" because we love the man.
JONES: Everybody say, yeah, yeah. Say, yeah, yeah.
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FEMIE: Yeah, yeah.
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CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
FEMIE: Truly grateful.
CONAN: We're talking with Bill T. Jones. The national tour of "Fela!" begins here in Washington, D.C. It goes to Atlanta, San Francisco and other places.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And in an earlier incarnation, you took the show to Nigeria. How was it received there?
JONES: You know, it was the strangest thing. We had been pushed and pulled because you realize that we were coming - at first they want us to come before the election. Then they said after the election, and then end up we were coming during the election. There was a curfew when we got there. Now, I say all this. I was not able to be there myself, but my associate director and associate choreographer, Nigel Smith and Maija Garcia, were, plus the whole cast, but it was transformative.
The performance, we - the agreement we made with his family, Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, was that we would play first at the shrine or the new shrine. The old shrine, as you know, burned - was burned or abandoned. That was great. That's when the poorest people were able to be there. Lillias White, who is - played our mother at that time, it's now being played by the wonderful English soprano Melanie Marshall here on the tour. But Lillias White, the Broadway diva, she said there was nothing like seeing his great ballad "Trouble Sleep" and singing one word - when troubled sleep - and then having 3,000 people in perfect pitch, perfect harmony come back with - (singing) Yanga, go wake him - (speaking) they know this music.
There were people who were weeping when they saw the footage of Nigerian independence, the initial Nigerian independence. They looked with astonishment. I can't believe you people from New York know our history. I don't know what they think. The history is quite available to everybody. But they were also very skeptical about it being a Broadway production. Fela was underground, people say. Broadway cannot be underground.
But, you know, when they saw the artistry of the entire production, the beauty of the music, Sahr's performance, Lillia's, the great Sandra Izsadore played by Paulette Ivory, and they were really, really moved by the show and we felt like it was a life-changing experience
CONAN: Let's go to Jane. Jane with us from Ann Arbor.
JANE: Hello there. Thank you so much for this wonderful show today. I am grateful to speak with you. You know, I've seen both - "Spring Awakening" twice before it came to Broadway, and "Fela!" twice on Broadway. I found them both similarly riveting and very, very thrilling and risky.
My question for you is about "Spring Awakening." I actually know one of the producers, an old friend, Tom Hulce. And he told me a while back the project that he had in mind, and I read the play - you know, I am a psychoanalyst, actually, and I found the play quite interesting because it was written by a contemporary of Freud, and it's a very psychological play. But never in a million years could I have imagined...
JONES: Excuse me a moment, ma'am. I'm going to really suffer if I don't do this. Saycon Sengbloh was in Nigeria, not Paulette Ivory, as Sandra Izsadore. Please continue. I want to make sure I don't get anyone's name wrong.
JANE: Oh, OK. Anyway, the play, written, as I've said, by a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, which never in my mind ended on - ended up on Broadway. But it was a brilliant choice, and I'm just really curious to hear what it was you saw in that play that led you to agree to the project.
JONES: Well, I think that would be a better question for the very gifted writer, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik and Tom himself. Because if you will remember, the play - as you know, it was so controversial it couldn't even be presented unedited, I think, in England until 1970s - the play ended in a very different, expressionistic, odd manner. It did not end with that love story of the - the pregnancy of the girl was almost a side issue.
We had to take that play and make it speak to our time, and I think the really brilliant Michael Mayer, his idea of having these young people pull out a microphone and sing their hearts when they're in - dressed in the attire of the 1890s, was the - goes to the heart of what that show succeeded in doing. It closed the gap between that time and ours through the use of music and staging.
I do think that the - I was very, very moved by the play, but it is a head-scratcher, the way it ends, and I thought that they had found a way to really find emotional closure in the Broadway production. But I think you should speak to those initial persons. I came in after the show. It already had been in development about, I think, six years.
CONAN: Jane, thanks very much.
CONAN: Finally, Bill T. Jones, we happen to speak with you on a week that the MacArthur Genius Grant Awards come out. You got one of those a few years ago. I wondered, what did you do with the money?
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JONES: Well, what a question. Well, my companion, Bjorn Amelan, we worked on our house. Some of it went to the company, but it was just - the health insurance was fantastic. It helped us really take a breath and think about priorities in life. It helped the company because it allowed me to begin working on new pieces.
It's a wonderful award. It happened when it happened. I wish it was happening now. I think the award is 500,000 now? But at that time it was determined by age, and I was only in the category of a quarter million. But, you know, the prestige of it has gone a long way to really(ph) - you know, artists, we live always with a sense of being insecure. We don't know where tomorrow is going to come from. But an award like that, someone's patting you on the back and said you done good. You really done good.
CONAN: Well, Bill T. Jones, thanks very much for your time. Good luck with the tour of "Fela!" and good luck with your performance tomorrow night.
JONES: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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