Friday, December 04, 2009

Fela! and Race

I must confess, we did not stay for the second half of Fela!
Even despite the incredible dancing and the fantastic music, spiritedly played by Antibalas, there is something very unconvincing about the whole thing.
We saw Kevin Mambo in the title role, and not the other guy, who is supposed to be amazing. Mambo is a very good impersonator, a good actor, a fine singer, but he seems to lack energy. But I can't blame my lack of enthusiasm for Fela! exclusively on him.
I thoroughly hate when I am asked to yell back at the stage and participate. These things work only if the audience is already in a frenzy. It is the job of the people onstage to whip up the audience, otherwise the participation is forced and bogus.
I felt utterly uncomfortable (and I do not normally suffer from musical timidity). Making people shake their booties 5 minutes into the play without the requisite amount of excitement somehow reminded me of lame Disneyland entertainers, desperately fishing for sympathy.
Fela's music begs for dancing. Sitting augustly in a Broadway theater is not the right concept for it. As the review in New York Magazine mentioned, there should be a mosh pit in the front, where people can dance. This would be more honest than trying to teach white people to shake their asses and it would better honor the power of the music.
According to Joan Accocella's review in The New Yorker, Fela's story has been glossed over for the play. Well, I didn't know anything about his life coming in and I could tell that there was something overly sanitized and hokey about the proceedings. Fela! feels as authentic as a Hard Rock Café. It's the "Rent" syndrome: the lives of bohemian, revolutionary people who struggle at the edges of society do not translate well into expensive, crowd pleasing musicals for the bourgeoisie.
The writers of Fela! confuse feeble jokes at the expense of white people and little snippets of commie propaganda with provocation or rawness. They are not.
These things remind me of Disney and how they scrub clean all the rawness, the real humanity out of the original stories they adapt until they are unrecognizable.
The play is underwritten. It's a man on a stage reciting his life's story. There is no action, there is just telling, like in some sort of school pageant. I am sure that in the life of Fela Kuti there is enough material for an opera, let alone a Broadway play, but that's not what we get here. I know that people with unimpeachably authentic reputations are at the helm of this play. Bill T. Jones, Jay Z, among others, but they try too hard to please the audience. I don't go to the theater to be pleased. Or rather, I don't go to a show about the life of a genius, royal pain in the ass like Fela Kuti, to be pleased.

Which takes me to the venerable Mr. Mamet, who intends to provoke, as usual, with his new polemical play, simply called Race.
The first provocation, and this is very meta, is that according to Mamet plus ça change, President Obama or not. The issue of race is as thorny, if not worse, than ever. True.
The second provocation: here's a wealthy man, the milquetoasty Richard Thomas (John Boy from The Waltons, the casting has to be on purpose), who is accused of raping a black woman. Why, not too long ago, black men were lynched just for looking at a white girl, so this is a very interesting starting point.
Mamet just comes out and says it: we are baroquely entangled, paralyzed by centuries of prejudice, on both sides. What comes of this is people afraid to speak their minds, people getting tangled in obscure discourses of good intentions and political correctness (and ever blossoming resentments) into utter incomprehension.
James Spader, playing the head lawyer of a firm supposed to defend Mr. John Boy Walton, seems like a paragon of racial virtue when it comes to blacks, but listen to him talk about someone called Rosa González. Race is like the nine circles of hell, concentric and inescapable.
Spader is extraordinary. He is funny, has impeccable timing and is totally natural.  He rocks. The rest of the cast is excellent too, particularly David Alan Grier as Spader's partner.
However, the play seems a little sloppy. I don't expect Mamet, who is one of my favorite playwrights, to repeat the same joke in one play (it's a good joke the first time around only). This disappoints me. I also don't expect him to not dot all of his i's and cross all of his t's. Some of that happens in this play, which feels a little lazy.
We are in for a rollercoaster of ideas and paradoxes on race. Characters are not really developed. They are mouthpieces for provocative fodder. The audience is led to believe it will discover something and that something is forgotten and something else is brought up. Worse, Mamet does the David Alan Grier character a terrible disservice. After all that happens, what does this man think? He doesn't say. This is a major flaw of the play.
However, Race is brisk and fun and shocking without resorting to cheap jokes, and Mamet's direction is better than usual. Another director may have made more of character and that would have added some interesting human nuance, rather than excellent talking points.  Mamet's rhythms and idioms, to which we are now used to, could also benefit from more naturalistic direction. Still, Race is a fun, brisk play with plenty of good zingers. It's short and zippy and bracing. It made me ponder. It made me gasp. It didn't please me.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:01 PM

    Great review of RACE! I agree with you completely. Spader is fabulous and Grier is terrific; upon their shoulders this Mamet endeavor succeeds.