By Joseph Edgar…..
As I walked into the Arena Rehearsal venue of Bolanle Austen Peter’s latest offering – Fela, it was as if something or someone hit me with a huge sledge hammer. I suddenly felt numb and had to lean on a budding but very sexy actress to get my balance. As I held on to her, the subject of my momentary discomfort stood there staring at the distance in full character without uttering a word. His blood shot eyes transfixed at something at the back of the hall, balding head shimmering from the lights on the stage and in his brown tobacco stained fingers the symbolic ‘wrap’’ which defined his principal.
Standing there was an apparition, a beautiful effigy of the late great rebel, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Standing there was Bolanle’s testimony to the great man and her forceful entry into the guiled halls of Nigeria’s great theatre impresarios. Depending on how this goes, she may start to rub her shoulders with such greats like Hubert Ogunde and Wole Soyinka.
As I regained my composure, I rushed to her. She too was in character. A beautiful Ankara with glittering stones was wrapped around her light frame and a huge microphone was her paint brush which was her instrument of choice as she worked on this huge canvas. I hugged her and with bated breath, asked where she found Fela. This was the closest characterization we would be seeing of the late great artist. She looked at me with tears beginning to well up in her eyes and said ‘’my brother it is God’’.
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He had walked into her facility seeking to rent a hall. He had never done any bit of acting in his life but was an Afrobeat artist sometime in his colourful past known as ‘’Heavy wind’’. In six weeks he had transformed not only into the legendary Fela but had also shown some of the most diligent work ethics anyone had seen in theatre.
His hard work showing tremendously in his characterisation flowing into his technique and eventually muting the otherwise excellent work rate of his co acts. This for me was ‘’the eureka’’ moment in Nigerian theatre. Watching this skinny rabble rouser one could be forgiven if you thought he was trained under the wonderful impresario Laurence Olivier. His charisma held the stage captive blowing away the motley crowd that made up his supporting cast.
Even when the spot light was not on him he still remained in character. The Fela swagger, which swayed between an effeminate, Bobrisky-type posturing and a devil-may-care aura was in full display. The unique walk, which threw up his skinny hips in those very tight outfits was in full display and from what you were looking at you begin to ask yourself why you had wasted your hard earned money watching the FELA brought to us by Americans. This was Fela, this was Bolanle going into Fela’s grave and exhuming his spirit, bottling it up and mixing it with some gin and giving it to this young man in her bid to achieve some sort of reincarnation of the maverick and make him speak to us one last time.
The songs telling Fela’s story, thumping the beautiful theatre with sounds of protest, the Queens carrying on with their chatter and trying so very hard to catch my attention with their highly seductive dance and the wonderful mix of almost perfectly delivered lines and professionally choreographed positioning all make me giddy with the excitement of expectation.
The only little thing here is the use of some usual faces. Those who had done Waka and Saka were prevalent in this offering and because they had done those two wonderful productions flawlessly, I found it a little bit difficult to see them in another role. They had with their powerful renditions unfortunately type casted themselves in my shallow mind. I guess she is trying to achieve a blend between those who understand her style and the new acts who would just be working with her for the first time.
One scene I want to highly recommend is the one that involved the mightily popular Zombie tune. This was Fela’s clarion call against the dictatorial tendencies of the military especially the military in government. The style was an anathema to democracy as it did not allow for consensus and freedom of speech. Bolanle comically tells this story with the same song, blunted its punch but still retaining the message. The scene left me in stitches as I looked closely at the facial expression of the actors dancing while stamping their boots on the stage floor with faux authority in a bid to stamp fear into the minds of the public. This was far from the poke in the eye style of the real Fela but with the same poignant effect of asking the system to sit up and respect basic human rights as we continue in our quest towards the actualization of national goals.
I decided not to stay till the end, so as not to spoil the effects on me come opening night. But from the little I saw, I really do believe that Bolanle this time has confidently decided to stare society in the face while proclaiming her ‘’come of age’’ as a highly respected theatre Impresario as she gets ready to unveil once again a much more authentic Fela to an unsuspecting audience.
….but the guy, kai, the characterisation is deafening in its power. Na wa.
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