Bill T. Jones has done it again. Globally recognized as icon and genius, he might have taken up the artist’s equivalent of daily golf and residency in a comfy condo in a Sunshine State. He might have lectured here, taught there (though only as a Distinguished Visitor), served as juror for prestigious prizes, and published his memoirs. The nomadic dance artist might have settled down.
Not Bill T. Jones. Once again, he has cast himself into the sea of risk---with its stony shores and crazy currents. He is one of the prime movers in bringing a new musical called Fela! to Broadway. Though in the Eugene O’Neill Theater, this is a radically different sort of Electra and Iceman. Jones is Fela!’s director and choreographer, co-author of its book, and one of the three who first conceptualized it.
The risk? Will the mainstream Broadway audience, so content with productions that are at once lavish and conventional, buy into the bright colors and defiant energies of Fela!? That “!” is the diacritical mark of the show’s intensity. The financial and psychic risk of Fela! is spread, like that of all Broadway shows, but at the end, as the audience buzzes and applauds, it is Jones, with his long arms and legs, who bounds onto the stage and dances with the actors.
I predict Fela! will succeed, that its passion and urgency and skill will prove contagious. So I deeply hope. Fela Kuti was an African musician who helped to propel and drive the music of his continent into global culture. The play is set in the Lagos, Nigeriaof the late 1970s. A vicious, corrupt military regime is in power. Post-colonialism has neither shaken off the past nor forged a better future. Fela, like his mother before him, is a prophet and architect of democracy. For that reason alone, the regime will torture them when it can and murder them if it can.
Fela is performing in his nightclub, the Shrine, with his fellow musicians and dancers, among them his band of Queens. As the action on stage flows through the theater, as the choreography of the Queens oes muscularly and elegantly into the aisles, members of the audience become Shriners, patrons of the club and members of its aroused, shrewd community. Through song and dance and monologue, Fela is explaining why he is going to leave Nigeria that night. Yet, after a journey through his past and through the underworld to consult with his murdered mother, Fela reverses his decision. He stays and organizes a demonstration in honor of her and others of the righteous dead. He himself will die two decades later---at home in Nigeria
Jones, like the Fela he has imagined for us, is a singular individual. All icons and geniuses are. That is one reason why they earn such status. Without compromising the individuality of each, Jones and Fela are companions, even brothers. They are cosmopolitans, but deeply rooted and grounded in a specific culture. They are courageously political, but yearningly spiritual. They believe gods and goddesses are there if we can but divine them. Both dancer and musician create resonant chords out of the political, the spiritual, and the aesthetic. Both can be caustic, angry, but they have humor and heart.
Bill T. Jones is still here, swimming strongly in the sea of risk. Praise and bless him.