Fela, one of the greatest African music voices and iconoclasts to have ever lived, had his life story relived for the second season in Lagos at a recent opening night of Fela and the Kalakuta Queens sponsored by MTN Foundation. Destination was Terra Kulture in Victoria Island, Lagos, where theatre-goers had made a weekly pilgrimage just to enjoy the true-life story of the women behind Fela’s Afro-beat music.
The much-trumpeted show was first received by Lagos audience in December 2017 and early January 2018 with the jazz artiste, Laitan Adeniji – a. k. a. “Heavywind” – playing the role of Fela. In spite of the long run of the shows, there was a huge clamour for the show to return.
This time, it returns with Patrick Diabuah as Fela. Diabuah has been a poster boy of contemporary musical theatre in Nigeria and his absence from the first Bolanle Austen-Peters’ production of Fela and the Kalakuta Queens did not escape carefully-raised eyebrows. Of course, the Fela role, according to the production notes from the director, Bolanle Austen-Peters, demands a creative artist who can act, sing and play at least a musical instrument. The real Fela was a multi-instrumentalist and so, it is usually a difficult task for both the director and the actor to nail the character right on its head, on stage. It takes grit and high level of commitment, both of which Diabuah demonstrated on stage at the sold out opening night.
First, his voice texture was a great match to Fela’s although his alter-ego in the orchestra pit did sing most of the songs. Call that division of labour. It was easy to pardon Diabuah for not overplaying the Fela role since the play is not really about Fela but his women. Or, his wives who doubled as his vocal back-up and dancers. The Kalakuta Queens were portrayed as sensual, devoted and fashionable women. Their unconventional lifestyle of co-habiting with their band leader is better explained through a series of scenes with each leading into a popular Fela song. Some of the songs include “Zombie”, “Shakara”, “Yellow Fever” and “Demokracy”.
With the illuminating multi-media backdrop showing the front-page headlines on old newspapers that covered the life and times of Fela, the timeline of the musical was established. The story covers the 60s till the early 80s’ period of Fela’s artistry, his cosmopolitan love life culminating in the unprecedented polygamous marriage to his 28 women.
Clearly, the director adopts a minimalist approach to the production with the handful of cast that represents the larger-than-life Fela music band. The plot is not exactly biographical, what with some omissions regarding how Fela juggled his first marriage and children alongside the Kalakuta Queens. The plot was carefully developed around the theme of the Kalakuta Queens, their sweet voices, pains, joy, mutual jealousy and shared passion for Fela and his music. Their common enemy was the military government and, perhaps, any new lady that Fela brings to the commune and makes “Kalakondo” impenetrable.
From the dialogue, Kalakondo is portrayed as the most desired place of utopia in Fela’s trouble-filled commune. To gain entry, a time-table for coital enjoyment with the Queens was made and sometimes broken over quarrels, favouritism and, sometimes, perceived misdemeanours from some of the Queens. The most-outspoken of the Kalakuta Queens were highlighted through the characters of Laide, Kike, Kewve and one of his two Ghanaian wives. Pidgin was the prominent language used in Fela’s Kalakuta and in the play. The Queens are shown to be resilient, loving and proud to be associated with Fela.
They constitute Fela’s army and were with him during his encounters with the military and his dubious recording company that owed him a large sum of money.
In all, the musical thrives on humour and great choreography. The Ituen Bassey-made costumes accentuate the queens’ sexuality which was an important element of their collective public image.
The high-spectacle production is one of the MTN Foundation’s Arts and Culture initiative which began in 2015 geared towards theatre renaissance in Nigeria. The Executive Secretary of the Foundation, Nonny Ugboma declared that the show is crucial to supporting the efforts at promoting the rich cultural diversity embedded in Nigerian history.
A musical production like Fela and the Kalakuta Queens reportedly gulps a N30million budget. That explains why it is important to have a committed sponsor and appreciative audience to achieve a successful production.