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?