In Conversation: Bill T. Jones
The name Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, conjures up an array of images and emotions; from enigma to polygamist to human rights activist and pioneer of Afrobeat, one of Africa’s most famous musical exports. Hence, it comes as no surprise that his life has become the focus of the theatre stage in recent times. Fela! the critically acclaimed Broadway musical brought much needed excitement and change to London’s theatrical landscape, in his own words, Bill T. Jones, the award-winning director and choreographer behind the show told me why he took a chance on a man he refers to as a ‘sacred monster,’ when I interviewed him in October 2010.
Belinda: What attracted you to Fela, his life, music and all that he stood for which compelled you to celebrate him in this manner?
Bill T. Jones: There are two ways of telling it. Speaking personally for myself, I was part of an Avant-Garde dance collective in the provincial city of Binghamton, New York, where I had gone to university and I was part of the group called the American Dance Asylum and it was a crazy group that wanted to change the world through Modern Dance. One of our lead teachers, Louise Welch, went into the library, looking for music for her class. We didn’t have a lot of musicians and so she wanted some African music and she saw a very colourful record of Fela’s album and she instantly said, oh, African music and she brought it back. I don’t know what she was thinking but it was Fela and I think it was probably Zombie and we were really interested and it was harder edged than Bob Marley. Bob Marley was more favoured of course and was much easier to relate to. So, it became part of our life there. I sort of lost track of Fela, maybe after late 80s but I was aware that he was in prison and that there were things happening but it wasn’t until Steve Hendel, our lead producer, through my lawyer, contacted me and asked if I knew Fela, and would I be interested in developing a project? We didn’t know what it would be, we didn’t know if it was going to be for a small project for an experimental space or if it was going to be for a high art circuit. There was talk of Broadway; I know that Steve’s wife is a producer on Broadway and that he wanted to do more. So, I began to read everything that I could and I invited Jim Lewis, the dramaturge to come in and development a treatment, which was going to be eight songs and eight scenes, unconnected. We developed that with titles like Black President, Showman and Water No Get Enemy and The Funeral, and sent it off to the various lawyers and the family in Nigeria and it took two years to get all of that sorted. I thought the project had fallen by the way side and that it was not going to happen but it did happen and we began to do workshops and we did, three/four workshops and finally decided, you know, we better just put this up and see if anybody comes. And we did it all off Broadway, at 37 Arts, by the side of Manhattan. Wonderful off-Broadway success and people really enjoyed it and were talking about it a lot. I meet people now and they say, ‘I saw it off Broadway. I didn’t know people were coming and then we went to Broadway.
Belinda: What a journey!
BTJ: Yes, it has been a journey.
Belinda: It has done so well in America, transferring from a theatre off-Broadway to Broadway, what was that transition like for you as the man behind the show?
BTJ: Like so much in New York, it was about real estate. What/where would be the theatre? That is a difficult thing. The theatre owners must choose you and if they would like you in their space. So, we had to find the theatre and money, just as we decided to move, the economic collapse happened. It so happened that we thought we would open in April but we didn’t end up opening until November. Fortunately, we waited because April, everything was really in a bad shape. I was lucky to have Steve, who told me that I would only have to deal with one producer which was him. Now, of course, he needed many more people to find the money to do it, Jay-Z, Will Smith, which in its own right, you can imagine him giving these people a sit down and talk about what they were going to do and that is a lot of work but everybody had an opinion as producers do, but Steve would take all the opinions, organise them and send them to me, so I didn’t have to deal with so many producers. We were concerned that the show would lose some essential funky vitality, having been in a small theatre off-Broadway, which actually helped it because it felt like the shrine, it felt more intimate. So, when we were faced with a Broadway theatre with chandeliers, it was like, this will be the death of our show, it will be a joke but once we got over crying and wringing our hands, which I did a lot and complaining, the team made some great choices about how we decorate the theatre, Robert Wiesel, came up with beautiful lightening plot with streams of what we call Christmas lights, Peter McGrinning, really brilliant man, built screens into these funky walls and suddenly, it began to look like a real place that had power. So, all of that was moving from, off-Broadway to Broadway and now, from Broadway to the National Theatre.
Belinda: Which is a whole different ball game, the National Theatre space is a big, are you concerned about losing that element of intimacy which you would get in small theatre or which the Shrine had because it was a closed knit community?
BTJ: Yes, I am concerned. We have been in the theatre working on two occasions and some things are really exciting when the dancers come off the stage and they are in that room, standing and looking, and they look beautiful and that is kind of wonderful. We are in repertoire with Hamlet, which means, every five days, everything must be taken down and a new show comes in and everything is put up again. I have made my peace with that. When you go to Broadway, it feels like this is home because we have moved in there and we have been there for over a year now and that is what you feel. Here, it will be more of a theatrical experience and demand more imagination from the audience. But when you walk into the theatre, you will hear the band playing live because there is a lobby here unlike in New York, there is no foyer, you just walk directly into the theatre but here, that will be a new experience and we hope to have music playing in the lobby before the show. There will be concessions and a way of getting people into a sense of this place.
Belinda: Basically you are transporting people to the shrine?
BTJ: Well, one hopes to. It is place of the imagination. Let’s be sure of that because to say it Lagos, I don’t think so. Lagos is Lagos. You have to ask the audience to use their imagination.
Belinda: Fela was big in Nigeria and some parts of Europe based on the little I know but were you nervous about introducing him to an American audience that may not have known much of the man even if they had heard the name once or twice?
BTJ: Yes, I was. It’s confusing to talk about New York and to talk about England. I must be careful that I don’t bring my assumptions to England that I had about New York. Broadway is colourful but a very conservative medium. There are, I find, very few characters of colour depicted on the Broadway stage. Men, women, black or whatever, they are not depicted as central characters. That was already a concern. I wonder if that is a concern here. Unless, I am missing something, it seems the ratio progress in Britain is further along than in the US. Maybe you will know better than I do…that was the first one, would people on Broadway be interested in a black man and an African man? Africa. Everyone has very rudimentary notions of what Africa is. Africa is Aids, war and famine, and to make an entertainment show about that was already something that I was concerned about. Fela’s personality, he was difficult and I find him fascinating but he is not the kind of showman, charming in a way that you might think Broadway audiences are interested in. But I think here, people like maybe slightly tougher things…
Belinda: I have often heard the argument that after Lagos, London and Europe is the next home to Afrobeat where you have the likes of Dele Sosimi and Afrobeat vibration and people have heard of Fela. Still, it is a whole different audience and the London critics…are you still nervous about bringing the show to London, a place where the critics are sometimes so hard to please?
BTJ: Dele is part of the Fela stage band for the stage musical. Maybe I am. I know they are famously tough and dismissive but we are bringing the best show we can and I think it is a good show. It is a show that is really made. Sahr is the only New York element; everyone else is from England or France.
Belinda: What do you think attracted peopled to the whole production in the US and stirred the attention it has garnered to date?
BTJ: I think the story was compelling to people. There are many people who have said to me, I had no idea about his music or the man or his story. People thank me for learning something and that was good, very good. I think there are even people, black people of a certain generation, who didn’t think Fela was serious to something and then when they came to the show, they had an opportunity to look closely at him, his life, his mother, politics and art and also they had more respects for him afterwards. Sahr also, our lead, he is fantastic. He really doesn’t look like Fela and he is from Sierra Lone but he was born to do this role and I think he brought so much research, intelligence and feeling to it that it was like nothing anyone and I had ever seen actually, his performance. So, that was one thing and I think the show itself, a combination of concert and a play and a hallucination was and is fresh for people and they appreciated it and the dancing. The dancing is wonderful and I think people feel that and I think the dancing helped some people to understand the music and appreciate it.
Belinda: When the project Fela was at its infancy stage, what did your research involve and did you by any chance go to Lagos to see, feel and experience his environment?
BTJ: I did not go. I wanted to go but the schedule didn’t allow it and also, I was sort of reluctant because I was like, if I go there I would become overwhelmed with the reality of that place and trying to do that is something that is better for a movie or TV because for the stage, it has to be about the imagination. A lot of things have and has to be suggested. So that was my way out. I did read Carlos Moore’s book, This Bitch Of A Life and Michael Venton, an anthropologist and friend of Fela’s and lived there in the shrine and had written a lot about it and then, there is Michael Veal, a musicologist, I believe either from Princeton or Rutgers university, has written a book called, The Life and Times of An African Icon, which is very scholarly and examines the whole background of Afrobeat coming out of hi-life and the relationship of American Funk to Africa and Africa to Funk, jazz, Fela’s form and his politics, his mother, his father and his childhood. A lot of things in those books were very, very important for me. And of course, watching the video, Music Is The Weapon, a documentary, I believe was made by a French team. A very important picture of Fela, which was made in about 1984 I believe and our show is set in 1978. So, it was research, listening and dreaming.
Belinda: In the process of your research, did you find it ironic that he was an advocate of human rights yet, it seemed there was this huge contradiction to the women, in particular the wives, who were seen and not heard and of course, some of his lyrics were criticised as being misogynist?
BTJ: He is very…he is an extremely complicated character. I call him a scared monster. He is not a saint and I do think that he stood for the right things. In a democratic society, you need to have people who strive to speak truth and to be interested in the average person. He had to teach himself, how to speak Pidgin English. He had to teach himself how to because he is very educated and comes from an educated background and he had to, in a way teach himself how to think and speak like the people on the streets, the market women, the areas boys and all of that…which shows a real commitment to a social vision that justifies a lot. It is interesting that some of those men that he criticised, the generals are still around.
Belinda: I have not seen the show and so, have no idea how the women are portrayed. Considering we didn’t hear much from the women during his lifetime, were you conscious about portraying them and how did you want to portray them to the audience and what was it about them that you wanted to show us which we may not have seen or thought of before?
BTJ: That also struck me as well. In the early versions of it, we tried to give them speaking parts, to have them say things like, why do you like Fela and we tried to put all of that in but we didn’t have the right performers, they were not actresses, they were dancers and also, it made the storytelling clumsy because so many voices talking in a somewhat not so conventional kind of theatre form than what we were trying to make, so we decided can everything come from Fela’s mouth, from the music, his mother or from the American woman that he claimed turned his world upside down and made him the activist musician that he was, Sandra Iszadore. So those are the people that speak. The women are a presence. Almost like recourse, they are beautiful, they are strong, they are individuals and we understand something that has been said about them but no, we don’t hear them each talk. We do read things that they were thinking or saying the day the compound was attacked, a very strong moment. You have to learn about the women by observing them and seeing his interaction with them.
Belinda: In life, Fela had a lot of women on stage, I believe over 20 but you have purposely gone for a lesser number of wives, why?
BTJ: That is the reality of theatre. There is only so many people that you can afford to have. And you have to once again, use your imagination and suggest that there are other women.
Belinda: It is well documented that he was a controversial musician, who throughout his life fought for the rights of the common man despite vilification, harassment, and even imprisonment by the government of Nigeria. However, there are those who condemn him for his attitude to women and having multiple wives. As one of the people, who gave birth to this production, what was the story about Fela, the man, the father, the son, the artist and activist hat you wanted to tell the world through this production?
BTJ: Well, I had like to reintroduce him to a world that may have forgotten him or maybe has an idea of him that could stand to be freshened. I am particularly talking to people who have never really heard of him or didn’t think that he had anything to say to them, that this is a subject for theatre and it is a subject for a musical form that is trying to redefine itself. What is musical? What is signing and dancing? That is what I had like to show? People take theatre very seriously here and I had to say this is my idea about theatre right now and this is what I had like to have and I had like to be part of something I see changing in England right now. What makes England hip now? What does hip mean and it can be tragic. Fela was very hip. Fela’s life was a difficult life, he chose to have it that way and he paid the highest price for his freedom. And I think that is always in a place like England that values, democracy and individualism, I think it is very important to look at a person who is trying to be free and be an individual. That is a story. I have always been curious about the English and their love of American musicals and this is not that type of musicals, so let’s see if they can appreciate that this is a direction musicals will go in. I think England is leading in a way, Europe and America because when you see Death And The Kings Horseman or Fela! at the National Theatre, England is really trying to be a multi-cultural story and that is about whose stories are being told? How are they being told? Who are the directors because often times in Broadway, the stage will have black people on it but nobody on the creative team is black.
Belinda: And of course, being aware of the balance between the music and dialogue to tell the story, how challenging was it to get that balance and get it right?
BTJ: It was and it remains difficult because with Afrobeat, one of the big fights we had in our creative team was often times, between the musical director, who is an Afrobeat authority and the sound designer, who had to do two things, which was to make the show legible, so that you can appreciate it for language but he also had to get the excitement of a concert and they are two different things, the way that the musical director heard the percussion, was very different to what a theatre audience needs to hear speaking and singing. So, that was one thing we had to work on. I think we are finding now, new set of questions here sat the National theatre because of the shape of the house, the personalities of the performers, the composition of the band and the band, they are very talented and I think some of them have not played Afrobeat. In New York, everybody had played Afrobeat.
Belinda: There have been talks of it going full circle and maybe going to Nigeria, is that something you would consider doing and why?
BTJ: You know, we have had offers but it’s chaotic. I mean, you are talking to one person and then suddenly, it’s no longer the same thing and then someone else is speaking up and there will be a third voice and its like, what is real? We need to have the correct theatre, we need to have the correct planning, and we need to have the correct resources, finances to security to really do the show. And to do a show like ours, you need powerful people and so, it’s mixed blessing. I cannot tell if we are speaking to the right people…but we have had some good discussions and we do have the blessings of Fela’s daughter, Femi and Seun, who came here and even gave generous notes to Roland who plays the role of Fela and gave him interesting points about Fela and his mannerisms.
Belinda: You have been so close to this, in fact, you are at the heart of it, in your opinion, what was Fela’s legacy musically and in other aspects of his life?
BTJ: Well, he says, in this piece, “music is the weapon,” that’s one thing but he says another thing, which is “we must confront these criminals wherever they are. The time is now,” and he says, “there are big thieves and there are little thieves. We must confront these criminals where they are and let’s turn this country into a picture of what we really are and who we really are,” and that is the idea he had. Would he be weeping about Nigeria today? I don’t know but he had great love for it and he was a man, even though he was difficult, he actually was passionate about justice. He was passionate about justice. That is a good message I think. What does it look like? That I think would be his legacy, a man and an artist who was so passionate about justice. His life was complicated and the man that we meet in 1978 is different to the man that died in 1997, a twenty years difference and we don’t really deal with those twenty years. But I think the picture that is most important to me is that one, where he is most powerful and clear and that is the one that I want to bring to London.
Belinda: How true to that image did you stay based on all that you read and studied?
BTJ: It couldn’t be. I am not a reporter and I didn’t want to try…the work is a work of imagination. So the feelings, I would like to be true. Did Fela and the Queens have a community? Yes. Was it utopia? Probably not. Did it go on forever? It did not but this moment is a snapshot. No one forced those women to be there. No one forced them to marry him. I think they really believed in him and believed in what they were doing. So, is it completely accurate? Maybe not but is it accurate in tone. Fela’s mother and Fela, people who knew them both say that’s very true, ‘the way it felt and the way you depict his relationship to his mother before and after she died,’ was very true to them. His father is not mentioned much in the show. We had an earlier version where we had his father in it but it became too much of, whose story are you telling? So, it had to be focused down. So, I stand by it but its not reporting. It is art and poetry.
Belinda: Did you ever expect or think that it would get this big or garner this much attention?
BTJ: No, I did not. Of course, I have a modern dance company and when I decided to do things in the commercial theatre, I thought well, maybe, it’s like winning the lottery. Maybe I will do something that will make money. That’s how it started. So, I was thinking about that possibly but did I really believe it? I don’t know if I did but I was very excited at each stage of development and still, excited at each stage. Where is it going? I don’t know. Where would I like it to go? I had like more people around the world to see it. I had like it to be touring on all the continents. And have it be around a long time.
Belinda: What do you want people to take away from the London run of Fela!
BTJ: Well, first and foremost, can they enjoy and participate and feel part of something? There are points in the piece when Fela says, “everyone stand up” and he tells people what to do. It’s like a rock concert. Can the theatre audience have the same spirit of participation and joy as a music concert and that remains to be seen. I don’t know, let’s see and that is part of it. They have to realise that they are expected to be part of the show and I hope that they are willing to do that.
Bill T Jones – Wexen
Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti – Tristam Kenton
Fela! is currently showing at the National Theatre, London