I discovered Fela Kuti the same week I discovered Midnite, thanks to another mix-CD from the same source. Months later, I saw posters all over downtown Manhattan announcing FELA! with the very special name Bill T. Jones at the bottom. I have been following Bill T.'s work for awhile, first having heard him speak when I was a dance student at Berkeley, up until reviewing Serenade/The Proposition nearly ten years later. He is one of the few artists I have ever encountered whose work is driven by an immense intellect, expressive of political rage, modulated by honest emotions, and sculpted by rigorous aesthetic standards. He is—and I say this without shame—the perfect artist.
How did Bill T. become Bill T.? Certain biographical facts are helpful, as are certain habits. While studying dance at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the 1970s, the big, black Bill T. met a little red haired theater student named Arnie Zane. They became lovers, then partners, forming Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company. Their work played with their difference of shape, size, and color, and their sameness of gender—some of the first modern dance that addressed gay issues. In the late 1980s, AIDS took Arnie from Bill T. and the rest of the world, but the company still bears both names together. And yes, Bill T. is HIV-positive.
He is also a voracious reader, and an intellectual task-master. When he starts thinking about a new work, before stepping foot in the studio, he reads. For his last cycle of works—three pieces on Abraham Lincoln, of which Serenade/The Proposition was a part—he read over 100 books on Lincoln and the American Civil War. He made his dancers read, too. In fact, as if they were high school students, each had to choose an individual figure from the period to research, bringing their intellectual and emotional knowledge of that personage to the studio.
I am certain that during the creation of Fela!, he and his cast worked in the same way. Kuti was a performer, but he was, perhaps more importantly, a political figure. I don't doubt that Jones identifies with him in some ways—both artists whose intellects refuse to let them igore injustice, both black, both HIV-positive. The first half of Fela! is mostly fun: an introduction to the sounds that make up his Afrobeat music, a dance lesson that gets the audience up on its feet and ticking its collective pelvis around an imaginary clock. Toward the end of the first act, though, things get dark, as we see the Nigerian government becoming uncomfortable with Kuti's power. It is in the second act that we see Bill T. as we know him really come forth. Fela's personal compound, where he lived with his mother and many wives, was literally besieged by the police; his women were raped; his mother was killed. For this scene, mugshots of members of the female ensemble are projected above the stage, and the women, one-by-one, tell us—in one cool sentence each—what the police did to them. Here is Bill T. demanding heart and mind from his dancers, as well as body.
The show is as good as a two hour Broadway show about Fela Kuti can be. That is not to say that it is perfect; the confines of telling such a big story in such a short time make for a show that is a bit episodic, conveyed in one of my less-favorite formats: flashback. And oddly, Jones does not address Kuti's HIV-status, which I found strange, even disingenuous. That said, the scale of Broadway, in exchange for what it takes, offers quite a lot in exchange. Jones has long been integrating projection into his work, but it has never worked so seamlessly as it does here, bringing Fela's mother back from the dead when her portrait opens its eyes and turns to chide her boy on stage. In the past, Jones hasn't had the funding for production to match his imagination, but now that he is a Tony Award winner, he will continue to work on Broadway, and I have no doubt that he will carve greater and greater width down that strip of fluff and flashing lights for meaningful political and artistic discourse.