The Midwest is often accused of parochialism — and Chicago theater assumed to be preoccupied with dysfunctional American families. But there has been the distinct flavor of
The little clutch of very smart and interesting plays began with "The Convert" at the
Those who tried to thrive in a Eurocentric landscape now dominated by British rulers were playing a game they would never be allowed to win at the expense of white competitors. And even as their heads were bouncing off the pitifully low ceiling of achievement erected by the colonialist masters, they found themselves ostracized by their fellow citizens.
But Gurira goes further than that — she also explores the clash of two very different cultures, a collision that left many Africans newly dissatisfied with elements of a life that once felt fulfilling. In "The Convert," Rhodesia is a dangerous mess.
Fast forward to "Fela," set in 1970s Nigeria and another dangerous mess. The national tour of this Broadway musical by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis — which has my highest recommendation — is approaching its final weekend at the
When I saw the show a couple of weeks ago, "The Convert" was very much in my mind, even though "Fela" takes place in the aftermath of what Gurira was describing in the present tense, and even though the antagonist in the musical is not the British colonialists but an oppressive and militaristic Nigerian government anxious to slap down a great musician, showman and political activist calling for individual freedoms.
In some ways, Kuti is not much different from Gurira's young black priest whose desire to succeed in the British-dominated Rhodesia rips him apart. Kuti had tasted the fruits of London and New York, sucked up those cities' culture and music scenes, and, after returning to Lagos, tried to forge a new kind of Afrobeat music that would combine elements of all these nations and point a way forward for the people of Nigeria. But the Nigerian government — autonomous, but nonetheless itself an atrophied residue of colonial complexity — could not handle that. Instead, the uniformed thugs pushed Kuti closer and closer to the desperate edge, a fate Jones and Ngaujah brilliantly express through song and dance.
"Fela" has the feel of a great party in a huge and infectious sea of moral bankruptcy. Therein lies its force.
On Monday, a flawed but equally forceful new play opened at the
But the play, which is also well worth seeing, is not just about the root of colonialist evil but far more about how we deal with it today. Who owns it? How should it be processed? How represented? How understood?
What to do? Fela had a heart-thumping solution, but as I sat in the Biograph Theatre on Monday watching Sibblies Drury's play, the pain behind his joyous music was ringing in my ears.