Africa rising: Bill T. Jones salutes Fela's life and music off-Broadway.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Broadway usually knows a good thing when it sees it. Let someone hit it big with a self-referential comic spree like The Producers, and it doesn't take long before someone else comes along with Spamalot. Mamma Mia! leads to Jersey Boys, and Rent spawns Spring Awakening.
So why has it taken more than 10 years since the sensational success of The Lion King for another musical to look at Africa as a source of compelling stories and irresistible rhythms? (Please, let's leave Tarzan out of this.) A mere handful of musicals--starting with the groundbreaking hit In Dabomey, in 1903, and including short-lived rarities like the 1962 Kwamina--have brought the music and dance of Africa to American theater audiences. The Lion King should have turned that trickle into a flood.
It didn't. So for now, we are making do with Bill T. Jones's Fela!, which isn't even on Broadway--it's been scheduled for a limited September run at 37 Arts. Devotees of world music will recognize the title character as the incomparable Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died in 1997.
Melding traditional African percussion with free-form American horn and guitar riffs, Kuti pioneered Afro-Beat, the successor to High Life as Africa's dominant homegrown music. He played in Europe with Western rock stars and recorded for Western labels, but he remained in Nigeria, lacing his funky, drawn-out songs with outspoken critiques of the country's corrupt governments and sometimes landing in jail.
Taking his cue from the Kuti songs that provide the score, Jones is mixing and matching genres in the show, which Jones wrote with Jim Lewis. Directing as well as choreographing, be is calling on the ensemble to perform numbers that incorporate African social dance, traditional African steps, and what one cast member calls "typical Bill T. Jones postmodern movement. " So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that Jones has pulled together an unusual cast. Their homes span several continents, their bios are short on standard musical theater experience but long on stints with companies like Urban Bush Women and Les Bailem Africains.
Like several of her castmates, Aimee Graham is an African American in the literal sense. Being in a show about Kuti has a special meaning for her. "I was born in Africa," she says. "But you grow up in France like a little French girl." At 15, when her parents took her back to the Central African Republic for an extended vacation, she had a change of heart. "I realized, 'You might be French on your passport, but you're African.' "When she came to New York to pursue dance, she landed in Forces of Nature, a contemporary company influenced by the traditions of West African dance. Although many American dancers have sought careers traveling in the opposite direction, Graham says, "Without any question, when you're black, there is more opportunity in the United States. My friends in Paris are struggling to find work."
Rujeko Dumbutshena, from Zimbabwe, thought she would leave dance behind when she carne to study visual arts at George Washington University. Having begun ballet at 6, she was amazed to find "how much African dance was appreciated" in the United States. On visits home, she trained in Zimbabwean dance, ultimately joining an African dance company in Washington, DC. That gig led eventually to her current job teaching African dance at Sarah Lawrence College and at a private school in Brooklyn. A fan of both Kuti and Jones, she found the opportunity to audition for Fela! something she "couldn't pass up."
Coming from a middle-class African family, Kuti was sent to London for university, and he pursued his passion for music on the sly. Graham tells a similar story. Studying philosophy and foreign languages at school near Paris, she says, "I sneaked my way into dancing." She took classes whenever she could, and started auditioning only when she went to live in London for a year.
Being involved in Fela!, she says, has reawakened her African identity. "I really need to use my education in Paris, my experience here, to try and do something for my country," she says.
Whatever she ends up doing, there's a lot to be said for just bringing a bit of Africa's vibrant contemporary culture to the American musical stage. "The Lion King is great and all," Graham says. "But African people aren't lions, you know."
Dumbutshena echoes the point: "Audiences in the West either get their vision of Africa from the devastation they see on TV--the AIDS epidemic, the people killing each other--or they go to Lincoln Center and watch the really traditional dance, with the grass skirts. To me, if you put a contemporary artist out there, their story bridges that gap."
For Graham, Fela! serves as a bridge in yet another way. As a university student in the mid-'90s, she was blown away when the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performed Still/Here at her school. Shy about her English, she didn't dare ask questions when Jones spoke afterwards. But she kept the program and wrote about the experience in her journal. After learning she'd be in Fela!, she found the entry. "I wrote that it would be my dream to work with an African-American choreographer like Bill T. Jones," she says. "Life is amazing."
Sylviane Gold writes for The New York Times and other publications.