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.