Isherwood Raises Issues, as the NY Times Covers MADOFF, and The Post Covers PARADE – We Also Consider FELA!

So The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood came to town to see 5 shows last weekend, and one of them was IMAGINING MADOFF. He talked about the show on WQXR, and wrote about it in today’s Times. The most exciting thing about it all was the great photo of Rick Foucheux on the front page of the Arts section. The review itself disappoints in its under-appreciation of the interplay between the main characters and the drama that effectively transpires between them. But Isherwood raises questions about the play’s form that we’ve heard echoed elsewhere.

Tonight we’re going to see FELA at The Shakespeare Theater. It’s the true story of legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, whose Afrobeat rhythms challenged authority and mobilized a generation. Charles Isherwood contributed a provocative think piece about that show last season, and it bears consideration for all who go to see — and who will no doubt enjoy — this Bill T. Jones directed and choreographed extravaganza. The concerns Isherwood raises about our enjoying the exotic onstage spectacle conveying, potentially, more than a whiff of minstrelsy, bring to mind some of the whispered concerns we’ve been hearing about PARADE as well. PARADE is its own galvanizing tour de force production that’s just received its own disappointing review in the Washington Post (apparently it’s “too solemn” for its own good), while receiving 5 star raves elsewhere.

But let’s consider Isherwood’s issues with FELA for a second.

Minstrel shows were revues including musical numbers, sketches and jokes performed in blackface (by both blacks and whites, for both blacks and whites) that disseminated ugly racial stereotypes. “Fela!” is about the singer who synthesized various musical influences to invent a new sound called Afrobeat, and who became a galvanizing force behind the Nigerians’ fight against an oppressive and corrupt government.

In contrast with characters in recent plays like Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” and Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed” — both of which explore the hard experience of African women by depicting fully developed lives caught in trying, sometimes terrible circumstances — the women of “Fela!” are largely festive window dressing. Attired in eye-catching, vibrantly colored, flesh-baring ensembles, with their faces painted, they strut around the stage and the theater looking exotic, imperious and sexy. So too do the male members of the ensemble, who also bare a lot of flesh but have little to do other than sing and dance.
Hence my discomfort. The presentation of African culture as a feast of exotic pageantry has the potential, at least, to reinforce stereotypes of African people as primitive and unsophisticated, albeit endowed with astounding aptitudes for song and dance. Although some of the dancers have individual moments, none are given individual voices; sometimes they simply drape the stage like gaudy décor. And the way the dancers weave in and out of the audience repeatedly seems ingratiating, a sort of seduction that almost sexualizes the performers.

The absence of staged narrative that might allow for more richly developed characters partly derives from the way the show is structured. A more evolved kind of jukebox musical, “Fela!” is conceived as a concert taking place on the final night at the Shrine nightclub, where Fela’s fans gathered to party and to hear his political consciousness-raising patter.

It’s for those in the audience — and I encourage everyone with an interest in new currents in theater to attend — to decide for themselves how effectively “Fela!” strikes a balance between presenting African experience as an audience-seducing entertainment and revealing the turbulent complexities of the culture behind it.

The question for our purposes is how does the performance of race in PARADE, with its double and triple-casting, play into or veer from the traps that Isherwood is referring to? The extraordinary performance of Kevin McAllister as Newt Lee and Jim Conley as well as a butler in the Governor’s Mansion is both electric, commanding, and, to some, troubling.

What say you, Washington theater-goers, and students of the form?


7 thoughts on “Isherwood Raises Issues, as the NY Times Covers MADOFF, and The Post Covers PARADE – We Also Consider FELA!

  1. To whom troubling, and in what way?

    It may at first be somewhat difficult for the audience to figure out that Jim Conley is not Newt Lee: their problem is not with the actor who plays both and differentiates them well, but with these being one of the first doubled roles: that the white men go from the (Black) factory watchman to (Black) factory janitor in their efforts to find a scapegoat for Mary Phagan’s murder, and treat both as their inferiors to be threatened and/or manipulated, seems not all that “stereotyping,”
    and the Black two characters have quite different modes of self-protection.

    Newt’s part is small (‘though with his Biblical mantra perhaps an interesting pre-figuring of the end of the play) and may be soon forgotten, but there are more than adequate opportunities to see a reasonably-rounded and individualized character in McAllister’s several scenes as Jim Conley. When he appears as Riley, the Governor’s butler, we know this is yet a third individual, also surviving as needs must be in a world he understand perfectly well.

    Because both of her parts are those of a maid servant, Kellee Knighten Hough may, superficially, have had more of a challenge. but there is opportunity to reveal a fair amount about Minola, who is quite a different woman than Angela.

    The few Black roles are as well differentiated and respected by the playwright as most of the (here doubled) white roles, if not more so…. and the two performers who played them more than first rate. What was the problem here again??
    Or is what’s troubling, as it should be, how real their part of the story is felt to be?

  2. For me, Fela! Can be described in one word: an explosion. There was so much to observe and my eyeballs were turning every which way they could, but I definitely couldn’t keep, in a good way. The play differed greatly from last week’s PARADE in that it was more free flowing, less focused on narrative and had a non-traditional way of communicating a strong message that most “international members of the audience” (As Fela himself called us) weren’t very used to. I felt the impact of communicating a complex situation through simple techniques, which mirrored the plot of the story itself. Fela Kuti was able to revolutionize a nation through music and rhythm, a strange and very unique method that usually isn’t associated with the idea of a revolution. The music was rich, vibrant, and really had a beat that I could connect with – it’s easy to see how a revolution as made from this!

    But, in contrast, there were moments when I found myself uncomfortable with the overall presentation of African culture to an audience that may be unfamiliar with it. For many, the stereotypical depiction of African life involves a certain wildness, often accompanied by uncivilized behavior and sexual vigor in the forefront. I didn’t really find many moments that revealed complexities that often aren’t shown, and a lot more attention was paid to the singing and dancing than the impactful subtleties of African culture. In a sense, I agree with Isherwood’s thoughts on Fela! Though it does graze the surface of very difficult topics and give the audience hints of political consciousness among Fela and his people, the structural presentation of the musical itself limited the ability to bring the characters to life.

    In PARADE, the situations were much more calm, allowing the audience to gaze at character’s reactions, persona, etc. (Sidenote: I do not thing the re-using of characters in PARADE allowed for plot assistance or enrichment; for me, these were the causes of my few moments of confusion). Other than Fela himself and a few other characters, I didn’t get the sense of who most of the people were, or who they were supposed to be. As an African American male (and a Media Studies Major), it probably is my unfortunate disposition to be highly critical of features involving the depiction of black people on a grand scheme, and I struggled with seeing a balance between how impactful and informative this piece was as opposed to being a work of entertainment.

  3. I definitely agree that Fela! could be described as an explosion; the colors, sounds, singing, and emotion consumed the whole theatre. I enjoyed the interaction of Fela! and the audience because you felt like you were part of the story and had a connection with him. Unfortunately I felt as if the only connection I had with him was a humorous one, and nothing deeper. I am all for comic relief, but a lot of the time serious content was abruptly interrupted by jokes, eliminating the sincere atmosphere. The subject matter in Fela! is deep and important, but I wasn’t impressed with the productions ability to make the audience care about it. I was overwhelmed with the “explosion” of senses in the theatre, but once I walked out, I questioned the message of the production and didn’t feel a call to make a change in my life. Often I greatly enjoy how a production makes me change the way I think about my life and actions and this was missing in Fela!.

    On the contrary, the music, colors, and choreography did leave an impression. Fela! was one of the most unique spectaculars I have ever seen. If the music and dance was what the writer intended as the musical’s focus than I feel they hit the mark, if not, I am a little disappointed.

    Overall the musical was entertaining and introduced me to a new type of musical genre and African culture.

  4. James, really glad you wrote in with this complex comment. Glad to know the focus of your major as well. I hope you’ll continue to develop these thoughts over the month — they’re very rich and you can really offer a host of fascinating contrasts between PARADE and FELA. I also really want to encourage you to get a student ticket to see the Alice Childress revival of TROUBLE IN MIND at Arena Stage ( — check out their discount for student tickets. I really hope to get over the Arena to see the show as well. It sounds great!) As someone relatively new to theater, you want too refining some of your language about theatrical techniques; for example, when you speak of “the re-using of characters in PARADE” — I think you’re talking about the actors playing multiple characters; or, as we say, actors being “double or triple cast.” So you would say that the African American actor, Kevin McAllister, is triple cast as Newt Lee/Jim Conley/and Riley the butler. Was that indeed confusing? Or was it effective, as a way of showing three varying aspects of African-Americam behavior all contained in the range of one African-American actor? Or was it problematic, asking one black actor to represent all of African-American experience in the play?
    Look forward to your continued thoughts about this.

    • Ari,

      Thank you for the response! I had the privilege of seeing TROUBLE IN MIND last year in Berkeley, and it was simply amazing. My friends are coming to visit from back home and we wanted to see a play and couldn’t decide on one – I’m thinking that may be the perfect one.

      Yes, “double or triple casting” is exactly what I was referring to, thank you for the tip. For me it was confusing at first because when I saw a character come out in a different scene I automatically assumed they were portraying the same character from an earlier scene; once I realized the same actor was portraying multiple characters it wasn’t too much of a problem. But you bring up a very interesting point I’d never considered. PARADE asked Kevin McAllister to effortlessly transcend between a range of African-American persona during that time frame, which for me wasn’t problematic at all. It showed his talents, as well as the multi-dimensional complexities of African Americans of that day and age. I think this variety offered me something very different from FELA, but the contrasts are definitely something I’m still working out in my head. So far, though, each play has me deep in thought, which I guess is kind of the purpose. I’m sure everyone will benefit when we get to discuss as a class!

  5. I think that almost everyone in the audience would admit that Fela! was an interactive play. Not every play nowadays demonstrates how to tell time with your buttocks and encourages the crowd’s immediate practice.

    Throughout the play I heard many members of the audience nodding their heads in agreement and chuckling at Fela’s facetious character. I almost felt as if Fela were constantly cracking inside jokes with some of the audience. I wish I had at least utilized Wikipedia Nigeria before I saw the play to learn a little more about the country and its politics during the play’s setting.

  6. Fela! provided a weaving of historical revolutionary content (PRO!) and a Las Vegas styled production (CON!).

    It is always interesting to feel inspired by an artistic production to get out of your seat and be the change you wish to see in the world. Fela! provided that sense of motivation through its usage of musical instruments blasting the range of sounds from traditional African drum beats to 60’s Afro-Cuban rock styling. The dancing incorporated with the music assisted with providing a natural, cultural undertone to the empowerment of revolution and liberation throughout the production. The images displayed, both physical and those presented through projection, served as visual aids to help me become one with the struggle of Fela as an “international member” of the Shrine Theater. In addition, the incorporation of having actors in the audience created that strong bond of audience and stage to allow for a direct range of emotions throughout the production.

    While I enjoyed the stylishness of the production, I was also bothered by them. As mentioned in James’ response above: the portrayal of the African/African American culture to and audience that was primarily white re-created that sense of allowing for the same privileged audience to receive information over a non-theater going (due to the expense of attending the theater) audience that is more likely to relate to Fela’s story. While this is a statement does not encompass the multi-factored reason why the Shakespeare Theater was predominately a white audience from a basic observation, it does touch upon the theme of exclusion present in Fela and in the city where it was presented, DC.

    Overall, Fela! was a production of great music, dancing, culture and impeccable acting. While, I appreciated the grandness of the production I would’ve liked to have more of a historical interpretation of why the conflict in Nigeria and not just a brief scene. The momoents in the play that allowed for a sense of empowrment to reach out and committ to a social justice issue today quickly beace overpowered by the glitz of a Las Vegas styled production and I am not sure if I appreciated that.

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