At a one-off appearance at Lincoln Center last August, Mark Stewart (known as Stew), the star and co-author of the autobiographical musical Passing Strange, confronted what the title of that evening’s performance had billed as "The Broadway Problem." Fortified by a horn section and guest vocalists, Stew and band led a pointed tour through musical theater’s representations of African-Americans and their musical traditions, ranging from new rock-funk settings of DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin’s Gullah-dialect lyrics for Porgy and Bess to damningly faithful renditions of songs from Hair ("Black Boys") and David Yazbek’s 2000 adaptation of The Full Monty ("Big Black Man"), that trade on crude stereotypes about "raw" black male sexuality. (By contrast, the set also included a lively but respectful take on pioneering black vaudevillian Bert Williams’s signature number, "Nobody.") Between songs, Stew mused on the success of the recently closed Passing Strange. The show placed "black people on Broadway," he emphasized, and after waiting a beat he added, in a sardonic falsetto, "for a minute!"
Leaving aside the remark’s ungraciousness—Passing Strange managed a respectable five-month Broadway run, earning Drama Desk and Tony awards along the way—Stew’s bitterness warrants neither full agreement nor an outright apologia. Whatever their creators’ intentions, everything from Porgy and Bess and Cabin in the Sky to Dreamgirls might be dismissed as white appropriations of black speech and song, and shows based in gospel (Your Arms Too Short to Box With God) or jazz (Ain’t Misbehavin’) as safe revivals of once-vital vernacular styles. Musicals about black life that fit neither of these categories have been rare and often short-lived (Purlie, inspired by a book of Ossie Davis’s; Langston Hughes’s Simply Heavenly), and while mixed-race and even colorblind casting are now common, many contemporary shows seem most interested in their black performers as vehicles for superhuman feats of vocal expressiveness. In 2006 Martin Short’s not-quite-one-man Fame Becomes Me parodied the cliché of the soul- or gospel-styled "eleven o’clock number" in a song by Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman: "A Big Black Lady Stops the Show."
In some respects Fela!, a musical biography of the Nigerian bandleader, political dissident and anti-establishment icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, mines this tradition. Notably, it finds time for "Rain," a thunderous second-act showcase number for the ghost of the hero’s mother, composed by the show’s musical director, Aaron Johnson, and trumpeter Jordan MacLean. But otherwise the show tells Fela’s story through his own music, and although its setting and protagonist are African, not African-American, it lacks for representation of neither. A focus of its first act is the crucial influence on Fela of a 1968-69 sojourn in Los Angeles, where he encountered Black Power politics and its accompanying soundtrack of funk and modal jazz. There are no speaking parts for white characters in the show; the demanding lead role is played at alternate performances by Sahr Ngaujah, a Sierra Leonean, and Kevin Mambo, a Canadian of Zimbabwean descent. The production’s only nonblack faces are found among its musicians, drawn from Antibalas, New York’s foremost exponents of Afrobeat, the musical style Fela invented and named. The multiracial band remains onstage for most of the show, not precisely "acting" but interacting with its protagonist and, functionally, portraying Afrika 70, Fela’s most celebrated ensemble.
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, Fela!, whose Broadway run began in November at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, appears poised to last longer than a minute. Even Stew might be heartened by the show’s reception, given the relatively limited concessions the show’s creators have made to the large segment of its potential audience more attuned to Stephen Sondheim’s wit or Stephen Schwartz’s shmaltz. Many lyrics are sung in the mix of Yoruba, nonstandard English and Lagos street slang that is as characteristic of Fela’s sound as its hocketed horn lines and interlocking guitar figures. (Some translated lyrics, and those to "Rain," are by Jim Lewis, Jones’s co-writer.) The show begins in medias res, with the band working through a groove-in-progress as the audience finds its seats; the overarching conceit is that we have walked into one of Fela’s regular appearances at The Shrine, the serially relocated Lagos nightclub at which he held court. We soon learn that the concert is Fela’s first in several months and, he pledges, his last in Nigeria. The setting is summer 1978, some time after a major raid by military police on the Kalakuta Republic, the compound where Fela lived communally with his musicians, dancers and entourage, many of whom were beaten or raped in the attack. His mother, in her late 70s, was thrown from a second-story window, suffering injuries that hastened her death.