LIANE HANSEN, Host:
Bill T. Jones became a star of modern dance in the 1980s. Together with his partner, Arnie Zane, Jones created movement that addressed human and social concerns. Now, Jones is tackling the issues that drove Fela Kuti's life on stage off Broadway. NPR's Allison Keyes has more.
ALLISON KEYES: Unidentified Woman: Two, three, four, go again.
KEYES: He says putting this show together has been a learning experience, partly because of the way theater people think of the dance world.
BILL T: They don't see it as drama. They don't see it as theater with that psychological edge that theater likes to pride itself on being able to deliver through text.
KEYES: Jones has been using text in his dance pieces since the 1970s because he says he's always been interested in the nuance of language in relation to the power of movement.
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KEYES: Jones says he needed to let go of what he calls the snobbishness of the dance world and learn that it isn't as easy as it seems to tell a story in musical theater. Jones says dancers feel they're creating art, and you don't have to explain to people what a movement means.
JONES: You feel it, or you don't feel it. In art, you don't have to explain what every dot and dash and color change means. It has another level of unity in your consciousness, and we rely on that. I did not abandon those ideas, even when I came into this world. The idea of multi-media just for the sake of multi-media is not interesting to me, but how can we extend the story or suggest aspects that would be cumbersome if we tried to explain them with words?
KEYES: Jones uses movement and multi-media to tell the story of the musician who was one of the fathers of Afrobeat, the music that blends jazz, funk, African harmonies and rhythms, and even a little James Brown.
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KEYES: Fela Kuti was born in Nigeria in 1938. His parents sent him to London for a medical education, but he chose music instead.
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KEYES: He became an activist after coming to America and learning about Malcom X and other black nationalists. He returned to Nigeria and began issuing blistering attacks on Nigeria's corrupt government and its treatment of the poor. He even ran for president twice.
JONES: This bigger than life but extremely human personality was just asking for someone to look at - try to approach him in an unpredictable way.
SAHR NGAUJAH: (As Fela Kuti) I'll turn Nigeria upside down. The police will try and shut me down, but the government won't come near me. I am the law and will do what I please so, yeah man. Let me your new black president. (unintelligible)
KEYES: Sahr Ngaujah is Fela Kuti in the production.
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KEYES: He sings. He roars. He spins like a dervish, and Ngaujah's family is from Sierra Leone. He grew up in Atlanta, where his father was a prominent DJ, and Ngaujah heard a lot of Fela's music growing up. So when he got the call to audition for the part, he turned to Fela for help, even though the musician died in 1997.
NGAUJAH: On my way into New York, I was talking to Fela. I said, look, man. I'm really excited that you're asserting your presence in this way. Now, whoever you want to inhabit you or give you space to inhabit them, I'm very excited about it. I can't wait to see it, you know. And if you want me to do this, then fine. I will make space for Fela Kuti to live. And a part of it is acting, and a part of it is a underground spiritual game.
KEYES: Ngaujah says he and the cast are getting help from their African ancestors, who he says want the show to succeed. But Bill T. Jones says it hasn't been easy. Fela Kuti was not a saint, and he isn't portrayed as one. Jones says it's tricky to present a complex figure like Fela, a political activist who bragged about his love of marijuana, women, and ice cream.
JONES: With all of his warts and all of his difficulty, he's got to come across the lights to us, and that means people of any description. Now, you can never be sure that everybody's getting it, but that is one of the jobs of musical theater work. If you have a protagonist, that protagonist, their inner life has got to be laid out in such a way that you can see some connection to it.
KEYES: It's hard for Americans to understand what Fela went through. His opposition to the Nigerian government got him arrested over 200 times. In 1977, soldiers attacked his compound and threw his 82-year-old mother, also an activist, from a second story window. This horrific story is presented in a mosaic of mug shots and text as the characters stand on a darkened stage. Ngaujah says a production's ability to juxtapose joyous music with sometimes chilling words can be unsettling.
NGAUJAH: People can dance to this music. Then, when you will get to the text, it's even being delivered in a way that's very, mm, nice. And when you hear what he says, you say, oh my God. And this is the reality of Africa, of course, you know, very extreme, beauty and horror.
KEYES: One moment, the audience is dancing in its seats. The next, it is frozen as Fela delivers his mother's coffin to the main Nigerian army barracks along with his followers, who were all carrying coffins. Director and choreographer Bill T. Jones says he hopes it carries a message to the audience.
JONES: Fela at the end says, whose coffin are you willing to carry? And I think that's an important question. It doesn't - it's not intended to be a guilt-driven, morbid inquiry. But it's actually one about a statement of purpose, how do you live life properly, a correct life these days. Whose coffin are you willing to carry?
KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News.
HANSEN: You can see one of the dance numbers from the musical "Fela!" at our website, npr.org. And while you're there, if you go to the Soapbox page, you can see my first video blog.
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