Detroit, Dance, and the Fela Frenzy

Fela Kuti, the Man

Written by Marcus R. White

Detroit is obsessed with FELA!  The dance-packed, theatrical musical  performance showcases some of the best and brightest in the industry.  My initial response to the production was “WOW, that was incredible.”  As an “informed” audience member, however, I wanted to take my analysis beyond the simple obvious amazing dance, theater, and musical excellence of the cast of FELA and show how Fela’s story is transformative for Detroit and the human experience abroad.

Detroit “Gets” FELA!

Institutions throughout the city have dedicated exhibits and mentions of the musical, creating a consistent “feel good” sentiment throughout many levels of our community.  The story of the man, Fela Kuti was presented in an accessible way to help connect the community, at least on the surface.  The Music Hall Detroit should be extremely proud of their ability to be the center of huge mobilization for the arts and culture in Detroit.   Beyond the actual performance the bringing together of so many community members cross class, culture, and race was inspiring to me and made me extremely hopeful for the city.

Transformations through “African” Dance Aesthetics

The movement vocabulary presented drew on experiences of contemporary African dance traditions. I am interested in the company’s ability to capture a unified understanding of “African” (more specifically Fela’s) aesthetics while being placed within the context of the American musical.  Fela’s music as presented in the musical helped shaped new dance forms or improve older dance traditions. It could be argued that his amalgamation of different sounds helped shape a new understanding of movement vocabularies.

I am most amazed at Bill T. Jones’ capturing the life and legacy of Fela Kuti through dance.  The strong connection to many of the original folkloric forms catapulted this musical as being one that is deeply rooted in African and African-American traditions.  This seems like an obvious understanding of Fela’s life and role in helping to develop the sounds in Nigerian and global music history; However, this compelled me to think about movement vocabulary and bodies within the Black diaspora.

Is FELA: The Musical limiting? 

Packaging the life of Fela within a two and a half hour production I imagine was a challenge for the creative team and introduced interesting choices about how to present his life.  Some of these choices may have been limiting and not truly capturing his life story.  I could agree with this point and even argued this point, but isn’t a strong skeleton of his legacy more productive to telling his story than no body of work at all?  Whatever your position the themes of struggle, resilience, and group thought were prevalent and stuck with me as messages I can think about in my own understanding of current socio-political issues.

Mr. Jones’ involvement in the project makes sense to me.  His sensibilities around political action could match closely with Fela Kuti’s in that both demonstrate that art can be the center of action to improve the way of life for humans throughout the globe.

Congratulations Cast of FELA and Good Luck to You for Future Shows!

The cast of FELA! in action

Review: FELA!, Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, Feb. 14 – Mar 4

By Julie Gervais

For almost three weeks now, it’s been really hot at the corner of Brush & Madison.

Hot with the pounding rhythms of Afrobeat. Hot with the oppression of post-independent military rule. Hot with mosquitoes and injustice and frustration, and with the odd combination of fear and fearlessness found in places where chaos and violence rule the day.

FELA! Ensemble

Most of all though, the heat comes from some of the most hyperkinetically mobile dancers ever gathered together in one show. Entire essays could be written on the range of movement of the human pelvis, as shown by these dancers.

The buzz has been loud in Metro Detroit about the Music Hall’s extended run of the hit Broadway musical ‘FELA!’, the story of the legendary Nigerian musician and activist.  And the show has not disappointed.

The energy levels are off the charts, and if you’re someone who finds it hard to sit still in your seat when the dancing is so big, you’re in luck here – audience participation in both the dancing and the singing is part of the ticket. Detroit is not generally a city of shy people, and hardly needed an invitation to get the house moving, even on a Tuesday.

The show does not delay in making clear its intentions.  Right up near the top, “Yellow Fever” is a spine-tingler. It moves so fast and furious, and so much like a finale, that you wonder how they can possibly go forward from there. Later on, you wonder how they’ll be able to do it again the next night.

Adesola Osakalumi as Fela Kuti

One of the show’s delights is getting to know this character, so much talked about. “He” (on Tuesday, the fabulous Adesola Osakalumi, who slips into Fela’s skin like it’s his own) is never far from the center of the swirling action, carrying the thread through the events of his life. If ever there was anyone whose life events merit a full evening of theatre, it’s this guy. Instead of adding drama, I’m told they needed to subtract some. Fela the public figure is a legend.

But Fela the man is something of a surprise. He’s child-like with wonder at the world, recounting his travels and adventures as a naïf, yet with the wisdom of an elder. His humor is self-deprecating and he finds it in some unlikely places (like prison).

It’s difficult to condense a life this big into an evening, and surely some aspects must be weighted at the expense of others. The murder of Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Kuti, figures large due to its enormous impact on his life. There is a beautiful duet between the two, poignant and haunting. She remains in the show after her death, appearing in a nightmarish scene that evolves – no point in lingering on the morose – into a kind of dance club party. The seeming incongruity of this turns out to be something of a calling card for the show – bad stuff happens in life, but you still take your joy where you can find it.

There is much joy, especially found during the many moments that offer a complex and rich layering of movement and song. That the directors make these moments feel thrilling, rather than overwhelming or confusing, is a huge tribute to them. (Choreography is by one of the dance world’s heroes, Bill T. Jones). Several things going on at once feels like…life. Life with heightened sensibilities, with excellent music and dancing, and with the warmth of Africa.







Vince Paul, Artistic Director of Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, on the Upcoming Presentation of FELA!

Recently, dancepanorama sat down to talk with Mr. Paul in the midst of whirlwind preparations for the Music Hall’s hosting of ‘Fela!’ It’s a three-week residency for this Tony Award winning Broadway hit, and preparations have been under way for well over a year. Producers are Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. How does such a big project get rolling, and just how much energy and enthusiasm has to be generated to ensure its success?

Compiled by Julie Gervais

On Bringing FELA! To Detroit

In my life journey, I did a lot of African shows. I was the production stage manager for a show called Africa Oye, and it really was the first authentic collection of African artists that toured throughout the U.S. In our travels, Fela Kuti’s music was played on the bus everyday. Everyone in Africa knows Fela; he’s a household name. Fast forward twenty years later, and someone does a musical based on his life. And I went to see the show, and I was just stunned. I was inspired, riveted…part of it is the super high energy and the incredible quality of the dancing. It seems hard to believe they’re going to do it again the next night, the energy level is so high. It started off as a dance project, and of course Bill T. Jones is an American master. It was like a full-length ballet set to Fela’s music, and so well crafted.

But then all this other stuff started to come into view, posing questions of social fairness, corruption, and it was about Lagos (Nigeria), yet it could have been about Detroit. The similarity of the issues is extraordinary. And that’s when it hit me…Detroit needs to see this. And I need to move heaven and earth, because it is a healing experience to see it. Suddenly, our issues are put into context: we’re not alone on earth with these issues. And if it helps us to focus on the causes of our issues, it’s the first step toward fixing them. But it’s packaged in such a fast moving, happy way. It puts ideas in your head, and they stay there, but he moves right on. And a week later you’re thinking – “wow is that what he said!?” That’s the sign of a great masterwork – that it resonates for weeks, months. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

The Music Hall’s Educational Mission and History, in the Context of Detroit’s Very Rich Cultural Mix

It really was a very heavy decision to bring the show. It’s very expensive; it’s a multi-million dollar project. And we’re running it for three weeks! Ok, if we ran it for a week, it would probably sell out, and it would be a great experience. But unless we engaged it for a longer run, it wouldn’t fulfill our mission: to augment education in Southeast Michigan. It’s our number one mission as a non-profit: to teach.

The performing arts as a teaching guide, or as a medium, for education – this is really one of the best tools we have. Who hasn’t been influenced by a song, a movie? Especially if you’re introducing people to whole new ideas; to entire cultures. We have so many cultures here, and our programming reflects that. When you come to see at show at Music Hall, it’s a show, but it’s also about exposure to cultures and ideas that may not be your own.

People from all over the world have put down deep roots here, and that has resulted in an incredibly high level of cultural output coming out of this area throughout our history. Metro Detroit has produced more artists of world renown than anywhere on earth! It’s because of the evolution that happens when ideas and cultures coexist and evolve by learning from each other.

This building has always been about diversity. Matilda Dodge Wilson built this theatre in 1928 and it became the first performing arts center of its caliber to offer open access to all people. She was a pioneer in so many ways, and we follow her mission to this day. It’s a terrific reflection of Detroit’s history.

So, many months ago, we started by creating a 30-foot exhibit that shows the timeline of Fela’s life, and students can get to know about him.

FELA! Study Guide Section

The exhibit has traveled throughout Detroit metro… Cranbrook, the Detroit Public Library, DTE, Cass Tech, Roper…and when the show leaves Detroit, the exhibit will travel with the tour. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History has built an entire static exhibit in one of their galleries and it runs for six months. We have a high school assembly program that we take out; it includes an introduction with a screen and narrator, then there’s some African dancers, and we talk about Afrobeat (Fela is considered the father of Afrobeat music), and we play the kids some James Brown drum rhythms, some Tupac rhythms, then we give them a scratchy recording from 1950 and everyone says “Oh! So that’s where they got that!” Because once they understand how music evolves, then they can participate in evolving it. And then they further the tradition of Metro Detroit’s cultural fertility; they take it out into the world.

Scale and Scope

This is, as far as I can tell, the largest initiative Music Hall has undertaken – ever – for a show. I hope we have created a template for future projects. Of course we always need to have a rich mix of programming, but if there were ever again a show that moves us like this, and with which we’re able to satisfy so many considerations, we’d do this again.

Fela’s Humanity and Complexity

The educational programming goes above and beyond what can be covered in an evening’s performance. The show covers a lot of territory, though. This a man with faults, but it’s a real story. We should beware the hero that is too pure. Of course heavy issues are toned down when working with younger kids, but I don’t think Bill T. Jones shies away from them. It’s honest. I think older students really appreciate that we’re not trying to cover anything up, it adds credibility. Kids are smart!

The Master Classes

The dancers are booking master classes throughout the area. (See dancepanorama calendar for this contact info!) I think the surprise will be the level of technique they bring. Being Bill T. Jones’ dancers, they are of course all highly trained and accomplished in ballet, modern and jazz before they even begin to study his movement, and that’s a deep study. It includes the western African dance forms and he is a master of those. The way he brings all of these influences together, the choreography and level of the dancing in this show – will leave you breathless. And it’s hard to sit still in your seat!

Building a Community Team

Detroit has a very rich history, and is complicated. It’s important that we learn to harness our collective power; it’s what will carry us forward. For this show, we have gathered so many organizations and demographics, and we’re all working together to support this show as a community. There are cultural and civic groups, educational institutions, professional societies, chambers of commerce, museums, galleries, libraries, real estate interests, other arts presenters, and of course the media…a very long and diverse list. The Opening Night Gala on Valentine’s Day will be incredible; there will be a day devoted to fundraising for the Jalen Rose Academy and we’ll do a Fab Five theme on February 19…I like to make these crossover connections and they are very important. The show is more than just a show, it’s a unity project. You will see representation from throughout the Metro area. It doesn’t happen fast, but in twenty years, this city is going to be a different place, if we keep working together like this! Not doing so would be the only thing that prevents us from becoming, once again, the Paris of the Midwest.