Through Feb. 10
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street, NW
Famed choreographer Bill T. Jones first crossed paths with the legendary Nigerian singer and political activist Fela Kuti at dance class. It was Binghamton, N.Y., in the ‘70s and while Fela wasn’t exactly there in person, his music was and it made a big impression.
“At the time I was very involved in contemporary, experimental dance,” remembers Jones, who’s gay. “And one of my colleagues [Lois Welk, founder of American Dance Asylum] discovered an album by Fela at the public library. It wasn’t the usual kind of African dance music I’d heard in class at the university. It was Afrobeat [Kuti’s trademark blend of jazz, traditional African sounds and funk] — an entirely different thing and it hit us in the eye.”
Fast forward several decades and Jones — now the world renowned co-founder of the Harlem-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company — is asked by producer Stephen Hendel to direct, choreograph and help write a Broadway bound musical exploring the intense, decadent and high-flying life of Fela who died from AIDS in 1997. Jones agrees. The project is held up by lawyers for two years, but eventually makes it to Broadway. Backed by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, among others, the show is a commercial and critical hit winning three Tony Awards (including best choreography for Jones).
On Inauguration Day, Jones was in Chapel Hill, N.C., opening a new project celebrating the centennial of gay dancer Nijinsky’s seminal and controversial ballet “Rite of Spring,” and feeling meditative about Obama’s second term.
“He’s a man of great intelligence and integrity but he’s been thrown into the quagmire that is our political system,” Jones says, “so he’s making incremental movements and sometimes that can be disappointing for those who want fast change.” But he was happy to talk about himself, and Fela, both the man and the show which is currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company with Adesola Osakalumi and Duain Richmond alternating the title role and Destiny’s Child star Michelle Williams as Sandra Isadore, one of Fela’s many women.
For Jones, the idea of Fela took a little getting used to. “Initially I fell under the sway of his story if not his charisma,” he says. “But once I could see him as a rock star of the African nationalist variety who also happened to be a political firebrand and Yoruba priest, I thought ‘Wow, this is a character who no one could have written.’ What other rock star had the distinction of being arrested 200 times and had his bones broken and hands crushed by the government in retaliation for the music they performed? Fela earned the world’s respect.”
When trying to nail scope of show, Jones says, he was faced with the challenge of introducing Fela to an audience that didn’t know him. “Most Broadway audiences don’t listen to world music, but Fela was a showman in tight pants, sexy, who played great music and that’s something everyone knows. My companion Bjorn Amelin suggested I bring a poster version of him to the stage. He was right.”
“I like that he had such an immense sexual appetite and stuck his thumb in the eye of polite society,” Jones says. “But Fela definitely wasn’t cuddly. The more I read I’m glad I’m glad that I got to know him from a distance. The same could be said of Elvis or Michael Jackson, any superstar. Josephine Baker’s son once said that the big stars like Baker belongs in the firmament, because if you get too close you get burned.”
In his searing and poetic memoir “Last Night on Earth,” Jones writes about dance, his humble beginnings, Manhattan’s gay baths, being HIV positive since 1985, and his late partner Arnie Zane’s death from AIDS. Near the end of his life, Zane encouraged Jones to find a new partner, saying he wouldn’t do well alone. “Of course he was right,” Jones says. “I’m a couple kind of person, and I’ve been a lucky S.O.B. I met Arnie when I was 19. And now I’ve been with Bjorn for many years. I hope this is the train that’s going to take me to the end of the line.”
Commercially speaking, “Fela!” has raised Jones to a higher stratum. There aren’t a lot of African Americans who’ve helmed big budget, hugely successful Broadway shows. “Broadway was a new demographic for me and the stakes were high. I come from the avant-garde where there’s a different sensibility. But in many respects, all projects are the same: It means finding a language, the world and the motor of whatever it is that you’re working on. That part never changes.”