Representing Fela

Last week The New York Times published an odd piece of writing by one its theater “critics”, Charles Isherwood about the Broadway show “Fela!” about the life of the Afrobeat king.  Isherwood ccused the show of “tilting” towards minstrelsy aimed at white audiences (basically, is Isherwood implying that Bill T Jones promotes blackface?), that the dancers were to sexy (they showed too much flesh and danced to suggestively) and interacted with the audience. He also had problems with the fact that it was all about Fela all the time and that no one else had a speaking role–except Fela and “an American.”

The charge of minstrelsy is so spurious as to not deserve comment (to lead up to that charge, he quoted David Mamet of all people on the etiquette for white people to talk about race).

The problem with Isherwood’s review was that it is based on little knowledge of Fela or is politics. Does Isherwood know anything about Fela’s personality and his music or politics? Fela Kuti was a genius, but he was definitely a narcissist. It was all about him all the time. It didn’t matter if it was his bandmembers (ask Pax Nicholas who Fela fired from his band after he got more applause from fans; the other band members knew better) or his 29 “wives,” they were all subject to his ego and moods.

In fact, Bill T Jones and his team’s decision to focus on Fela sounds closer to the real Fela than Isherwood’s nonsense.

That said, if Isherwood was serious about criticizing “Fela!” he could have done what more level-headed critics have done and written about things like Fela’s abusive relationship with his wives (despite the revisionism; see Carlos Moore’s new book) or Fela’s AIDS denialism.  Now those are things the play does not want to dwell on.



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

1 Comment
  1. I have not seen the play, but I did see Fela twice including one show at the Shrine. I recognize the complexity of Fela having spoken to the man, having read the Carlos Moore book, and listening to his music for almost 30 years.

    I read the Time article and suspect many of the criticisms are valid or at least worth exploring. When viewed from an American perspective the charge of "minstralism" deserves consideration. The play emphasizes "happy naked natives singing and dancing." (Racist interpretation used for effect-please forgive me). I consider most commercial hip-hop and "African-American" themed TV (Tyler Perry) to be guilty minstralism as well.

    Since I haven't seen the play, I don't know if the charges are vald, however I think your reaction is over the top.

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