Fela and His Queens return on stage, reloaded with legend’s activism
When Mrs. Bolanle Austin-Peters first had the idea of producing a musical theatre on Fela two years ago with her BAP Productions company, she was actually responding to the feminine impulse in her. As a woman, she had always wondered what happened to Fela’s many women and why they so quickly faded away years after the passing of the legendary musician. She contacted the family, did her research and came up with Fela and the Kalakuta Queens musical. It was the soar-away success that soon hit stages in Lagos, Abuja, Pretoria (South Africa), and Cairo (Egypt). It also enjoyed corporate bookings.
And as she later put it at a recent briefing on the reloaded Fela’s Republic and the Kalakuta Queens billed for the Yuletide season, “So, because I’m a woman we wanted to push women’s stories. Now, the women were part of Fela’s music. Somehow, nobody remembers them. It’s almost like they existed, then they faded into thin air. That music wouldn’t have existed if there were no Fela’s women. And there were men we spoke to when we were doing our research who told us that most of them went to the shrine because of the girls, not only because of Fela. So, how come all of a sudden it’s just Fela that’s being pushed and these women have been forgotten? So, we owe them the duty to always ensure that their own legacy is not forgotten.”
To realise the two performances, Mrs. Austin-Peters sought the help of Fela’s family, including three of the women who lived with the music legend.
“In putting together the story, we did a lot of research and the family has been heavily involved in this,” she said. “Femi (Kuti), his manager… So many people have been involved in this process. So, I’m a woman; so when we read books and put all this information together, it was very easy for us to find out exactly what we wanted to talk about and being the director, the person who sort of birthed this. I knew the direction that I wanted to take.
“We have Laide and we also have Busola … about three of Fela’s women were here with us throughout the process of putting together the script. So they were on stage. You didn’t see them? They were on stage last year also. We’ll try and bring them back this year.”
On account of Fela and the Kalakuta Queens’ success, many have kept clamouring for a repeat of the show that re-enacted one of the city’s undying and defining historical aspects and set Africa on the path of revolutionary and visionary musical experience. But Mrs. Austin-Peters’ innovative and creative spirit is not one that likes to dwell on the same thing. So instead of merely bringing back Fela and the Kalakuta Queens’, she decided to tweak the show in an inclusive manner that will yield audiences the fuller maverick Fela’s Republic and the Kalakuta Queens.
While the first show dwelt more on Fela and his women, the new, reloaded show will take on the quintessential Fela who was a visionary, a rebel with a cause, and the prophet who saw Nigeria’s tomorrow and perfected prophesied to a country of unbelievers in the man’s immortal message that continues to haunt the soul of a nation. So, there will be a lot of Fela’s yabis and he accurately told his countrymen and women the story of their lives decades ago, the story that has become a living reality years later.
Fela spoke and sang about Nigeria’s endemic corruption, its docile citizenry that perennially fails to question the status quo of the enslavement in the midst of plenty and how the chains of colonial mentality will continue to deepen.
Mrs. Austin-Peters pointed at the root of the country’s problems and why, in spite of Fela’s early warning, Nigerians still fail to lift themselves up from being the underdog, when she said, “I think that if you study us as a group, we have a very short attention span; we also have some form of amnesia. We forget and we forgive very easily and it is the contrary everywhere else in the world. Over there, when people do something that is wrong and they are held accountable and if you run, they will find you. I think as people, we are ready to forgive.
“So, our nation is where it is today because we don’t hold anybody accountable. We forget very easily. You know, two years down the line and we’re like, ‘Oh! That story. Remember that one that stole the money!…’ It can’t happen in Europe. They will make sure they find you and they will prosecute you even if you are 100 years old.
“So, I think that is one of the character flaws we have as people. So, Fela was like a lone voice. Remember then, with Tai Solarin, Gani Fawhehinmi, and all these other people; they’ve all gone. There are a few people that are talking now. A lot of times, we talk about the government. It’s not government alone. It’s us as a people. You know, all of us are accomplices, because we all behave badly – that’s the truth. A lot of times I look at people, and I say, ‘you know you keep talking about the government; you are the government, and you badly behave. Is it the government that tells someone to drive one-way? Is it the government that tells staff in an office not to do his work? So you know, the blame is not only about the government; it’s about us as a people.”
For the director of Fela’s Republic and the Kalakuta Queens, another character flaw Nigerians suffer from is encapsulated in Fela’s immortal lines: ‘I no wan die/I no wan quench/I get mama/I get papa/I get pikin’ about which Mrs. Austin-Peters lamented, “We are also a very hopeful nation. We hope based on nothing. We keep saying, ‘By God’s grace, it will change’. How can you change things without work? This play won’t happen if I didn’t do it. And the excellence that we seek in it will not happen if I didn’t drive myself and my team. But the tendency is for us to say ‘Oh, one day we’ll get to know how God really looks like’. Right! Without doing anything? No, you will not!”
So, it is Fela’s fiery activism that BAP Productions has infused into the new performance, which she said would give the show heavy political slant perhaps to match the mood of the times Nigeria currently finds itself in the throes of a democracy that is fast becoming crazy, to parody Fela
“So, in Fela’s Republic and the Kalakuta Queens, it’s a fusion of Fela’s activism plus the girls, and music, of course.”
Starting with this Yuletide season, BAP Productions will begin monthly theatre performances at Terra Arena Theatre, which she hopes would be its own tourist attraction to theatregoers.
“You know, right now we have a 12-month plan,” Mrs. Austin-Peters explained. “So we are going to have a play showing every month, every Sunday. So next year, we’re going to have 12 new shows, plus our Christmas and Easter entertainment. So, we’re expanding the horizon because we’ve become a tourist destination and a lot of people, when they come into town, they’re asking, ‘what show do we have?’ We took a break when we built this place, but now we have the capacity; we have a team that works. So many people are working with us now; so, it is easier for us to do a lot more productions.”
She spoke about her dedicated team of performers, which she has built into a theatre company, noting, “We have the best chorographers. We have guest artists; we don’t cut corners; we have phenomenal people doing costume, and the band, probably the best band in Lagos. So, it’s that spirit of excellence that I think that all of us need to strive, especially Nigeria as nation, and also as a people. We just have to keep understanding that we don’t exist in a vacuum. The world has standards and we also have to adhere to those standards.
“Okay, this is a Christmas show, from what I understand, but how often will you keep preaching this gospel of change that we’re looking for with plays?”
Undoubtedly, the major success of BAP’s Fela as a musical theatre, apart from the energetic dances, the band pelting the audience with scintillating music, has been the man playing Fela, who is also Fela’s musical protégé, Mr. ’Laitan Adeniji (aka Adeniji Heavywind), a saxophone player with immense skills. He confesses to being discovered as a stage actor by Mrs. Austin-Peters, saying he “never knew I could act until I met Bolanle”, and counts it as a privilege to play the larger-than-life Fela on stage before a-wooing audience.
In an interview two years ago, Mr. Adeniji summed up the political essence of Fela and came up with the verdict that the country failed the iconic musician who was bold enough to lead a march that never moved forward. That political life that defined Fela’s inimitable yabis is what will be on display when the show opens.
According to him, “It is unfortunate because that is what Fela continued to preach, that nobody wants to die; everybody wants to build houses – My mamma dey for house; my papa dey there. So, police go slap your face, you no go talk. Army man go whip your nyash, you no go talk. This guy was right in front, leading the way, but where were we? He didn’t see us because we didn’t want to be whipped by any of these… I don’t know what to call them. So, we preferred to play safe and this man was bold enough to step out, saying, ‘I don’t care what you do to me.’ Fela would have expected better from the people. So yes, I would say we failed Fela and failed ourselves!”
Adeniji also said there I opportunity cost to Nigeria’s docility that Fela decried which he said is playing out many years after the political prophet passed onto ancestry, noting, “It is what we are going through today. It is what we have been going through in the past few years. Look around us; look at small countries, and look at countries that don’t have a dime. Look at how decent and different they do things. So, baba has spoken everything already and, look at us today. We’re suffering it today. Even a half bag of rice, they are ready to vote; small money thrown at them, they are ready to die. What kind of human beings are we, for crying out loud?!
“…It’s unfortunate, but Fela died from the disappointment of his people who are not able to stand up to those who inflict suffering on them. Fela’s legacy and the fact that nothing is being done is why we are still where we are today. If you check, all the man was saying in the 1970s and 1980s, you will see that we still haven’t moved from where we used to be!”
Some of the starts of the production, Dolapo Phillips, Ure Eke, and Bunmi Olunloyo all said they were ready to give audiences the best of their theatric performances this Yuletide. Also, an official of major sponsor, Ecobank Plc, Mr. Aderemi Sanusi, commended the initiative.
“Ecobank has passion and love for African culture, to promote African culture and take it to the global arena,” Sanusi said. “We believe that youths are important and this production (Fela’s Republic and the Kalakuta Queens) has a lot of youths and we believe it will impact society. BAP is a known brand for showcasing culture. We’re also very passionate as a brand about culture. We’re alive to the vision of building culture and creativity and things that will build our youths.”
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