Aside from the exclamation points that dot their titles and the not insignificant fact that their subjects and actors are primarily African or African American, these two productions have little in common. Fela! is the terrific musicalized bio piece about Nigerian Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti, conceived, directed, and choreographed by Bill T. Jones. Wig Out! is a play about drag houses in Harlem written by the young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Tina Landau. Although Wig Out!’s script is peppered with musical phrases and references, and although it, like Fela!, directly addresses the theatre audience as the spectators for its performances, Fela! makes of an inspiring life story an exciting few hours at the theatre, while Wig Out!’s mélange of Brechtian commentary, lip-synced performance numbers, and melodramatic monologues about how its characters came to drag never manages to thrill.
37 Arts houses Fela!, which turns the venue into “The Shrine,” Fela Kuti’s Lagos nightclub to which he retreated for long late-night hours late to perform his revolutionary music for audiences captivated by his on-stage acts of both musical and political resistance. The “we” he creates from the stage encompasses his fellow Nigerians, who sometimes risked their lives to play in his band or enjoy his music from the audience, and also the audience of the present moment, a refreshingly diverse group of New York spectators—across race and ethnicity as well as generation—whom Sahr Ngaujah, in a tour de force performance as Fela, hails as the “us” of the moment. Within the performance’s first few moments, he congratulates us for making our way to this “dangerous neighborhood,” which prompts laughs from a few spectators who clearly think he means 37th St. between 9th and 10th in Manhattan. Quickly, we realize he means the Nigerian audience into which Fela would have looked as he performed, and the twittering laughter among spectators stops.
Yet not long after, Ngaujah as Fela and the remarkable dancers and musicians he commands with an orchestral flick of his wrist and his mic instruct us—the 37 Arts audience—in pelvic thrusts, bumps, and grinds. Ngaujah asks spectators to stand, so that he and the ensemble can show us how to move our hips as though they’re tracing the numbers on a clock face. Spectators rise gamely, and laugh with pleasure when they realize how difficult it is to isolate your pelvis with such precision. That brief moment of mostly failed participation helps us realize that dances that look fluid, graceful, and somehow easy require high levels of talent and virtuosity to bring off.
Likewise, in the second act, Ngaujah invites us to vocalize with him and the cast, teaching us a short musical choral phrase to punctuate his verses. He and the ensemble stop their singing to listen to ours for a moment before they resume their show. These moments of blurring the then-and-there and the here-and-now work profitably, not to encourage a simple identification among these two very different audiences but to underline that even in Nigeria, Fela’s concerts were pedagogical, as he taught people how to move to the newly created beat.
Afrobeat rhythms and melodies surround the audience throughout the performance, which plays like a cross between a concert, a musical, a dance performance, and a one-man show. A dance troupe, a vocal ensemble, and a large band filled with bass guitar, trumpets, saxophones, and various kinds of drums and percussion back the production, and Ngaujah’s electrifying presence pulls the production elements together. The cast is costumed in eclectic draperies of beads and shells, which decorate flounces and bras on the women, who wear leather leg braces created with ladder-like, colorful belts buckled from ankle to hip. The men wear, without shirts, pants and jackets that look a bit like Zoot suits. Fela’s costume is an aqua jump suit in the first act and a pink one in the second, both decorated with geometric and circular markings that appear somehow tribal as well as playful.
The production spectacularizes everything, while at the same time, it maintains respect for traditions and histories far removed. The theatre’s walls are decorated with drawings of political icons, heroes in the Nigerian and the African American struggle for civil rights, including Malcolm X and Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, martyred when she was thrown from a second-story window by government flunkies harassing and terrorizing Fela’s family. She was a powerful, proud social activist, the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car. Her picture on the theatre’s wall is dotted with tear drops (or rain drops) that fall around her image.
Funmilayo appears live in the production as a ghostly presence, singing beautifully from a scaffold above the stage, her face always in shadow, even though she’s costumed in a rich and shimmering white headdress and gown. When at the end Fela joins her, comforted by her memory and her performative presence, they seem to ascend to somewhere more heavenly, drawn up and together again by the music he created.
Fela! plays like a revue, moving between songs and banter with the audience, and sprinkled with performances-within-the-performance that create an image of the man and his life. Fela rehearses the genesis of his music, doing what he calls “BID”—breaking it down—to guide us through his past. He saw Frank Sinatra play in London; he learned jazz and blues and reggae; he developed a political analysis of the history of colonialism in Africa; and he returned to put it all together in the sounds and stylings of Afrobeat.
Fela!’s talented onstage band is comprised entirely of men, who present a range of races and ethnicities, from white to Asian to Asian American to African to African American and Latino. Ngaujah, as Fela, interacts with them like a bandleader, his actions authoritative, commanding, and insistent, while he also plays with them as a comrade, handed by his dancers first the sax, then the trumpet, then again the sax, to stand center stage and blow his horn like the Pied Piper he was for many of his people. Ngaujah also sings, and works the audience like a stand-up comedian emptying a free flowing vein of politically pointed one-liners and observations.
Often, song lyrics appear projected behind Ngaujah and the cast, typing themselves out over black-and-white video images of Nigeria in political upheaval. The lyrics are poetic evocations, describing quotidian details of daily life as well as the more violent interactions Fela and others suffered at the hands of the army, national corporations, and other anti-libertarian factions. When a thousand soldiers surround Fela’s house, beating and raping Fela’s followers then burning the place down, the moment is described quietly, with each ensemble member reporting one of the brutalizing experiences whose details are projected in poetry above the stage.
Jones’s direction and his choreography balances moments of enormous sound with moments of moving quiet, modulating the performance’s tone and intensity so that his audience can absorb the details of the lives and performances shared. The dancers are mesmerizing, whipped to heights of creative, physical expression by the band and Fela’s voice, so that in one number, they seem to be flying off the floor, every limb swinging in movements both angular and circular that propel them away from gravity.
The ensemble’s skill and Jones’s choreography lets them isolate body parts and move them against each other simultaneously, so that the dancers seem larger than life, so much more than the sum of their parts. As they dance in unison, they meld together and then apart, embodying the fractures of community in struggle and the frenetic yet focused energy of resistance. Across gender, their muscular bodies shine with the sweat of not just their effort, but their commitment to the moment and the message. Watching beads of water fly from their limbs felt like observing a ritual born of water, earth, flesh, and heart.
Ngaujah’s performance carries Fela! into the posterity of theatre as much as Fela Kuti’s music wrote him into the history of the world. Ngaujah mesmerizes as he cajoles us to grind our hips or chant Fela’s verses; he inspires the dancers and the band to ever greater physical and expressive heights; and he pulls us into the past and the present at once, to embody the spirit of a man who refused to be broken and refused to be silenced, whose music honors resistance through art as a vital political response.
Wig Out!, too, wants to address art and survival, and the necessity of turning lives into performances that create meaning where there might otherwise only be emptiness. Playwright McCraney borrows wholesale the outline of Jenny Livingston’s classic 1990 documentary about Harlem drag balls, Paris is Burning, by staging a competition between two different “houses,” or families of drag artists who identify as a unit.
(Interestingly, both Wig Out! and Fela! include glossaries in their programs, presuming audiences who need instruction to follow the subcultural language and organizations they depict. In Wig Out!’s case, however, the pedagogy condescends to both its audience and its subject, since the kinds of balls McCraney represents are no longer unfamiliar, thanks to Livingston’s film and Madonna’s pop culture appropriations. Fela!’s glossary more helpfully defines African terms and sayings peppered through the script, translating key allusions and phrases.)
Over the structure of the ball competition McCraney lays a creaky melodrama about three gay male couples at various stages of accepting not just their sexuality but their penchant for drag, represented here for some characters as beyond the pale of conventional gay life. That each of the characters is Latino or African American also weights how they commit to their sexuality. Lucian (Erik King), the Latino “father” of the House of Light in which the play’s various heroes affiliate, is hyper-masculine, calling out the “faggots” he orders around and emotionally controls.
Eric (Andre Holland), a closeted gay African American man whom the statuesque Ms. Nina (Clifton Oliver) seduces on a subway, takes home to bed, and later brings to the ball, gives the audience its point of entry into this subculture, since somehow, as a black gay man in New York, Eric has never heard about the balls in Harlem. The lame device makes Eric an unconvincing and disposable character; he serves only to hold the spectator’s place in the narrative.
The earnest play suffers from a muddled conception. It aspires at once to a wry Brechtian commentary on its action, provided by “The Fates 3”—Fay (Rebecca Naomi Jones), Fate (Angela Grovey), and Faith (McKenzie Frye)—who serve as the Greek chorus as well as the play’s back-up girl group. The women sometimes hit a campy chord, especially when peppering the proceedings with relevant and punchy phrases from musicals or rock bands. But their commentary comes and goes. Too often, they retreat into the background, and they never work as fully thought-through characters.
When The Fates 3 recede, the play’s melodrama bubbles up, tracking the couples through sexual and strangely asocial traumas. Although Ms. Nina and Eric meet on a train, and although Eric is loathe to appear gay (or to be seen with a trans person), the outside world rarely intrudes. McCraney draws the houses and their competitions as insular and self-referential, creating a suffocating atmosphere that makes the play and the production begin to feel too close, airless, and tunnel-visioned.
In fact, with the Vineyard Theatre rearranged so that a runway projects from the stage into the center of the house, and a good third of the audience arranged to watch from either side of the stage, spectators are made complicit, like it or not. We’re sometimes treated as participants at a ball, sometimes as players in the melodrama, sometimes as the thoughtful spectator Brecht wanted to critically engage theatrical action. But we swing among these options, finally unsure where we’re supposed to put ourselves or what we’re supposed to think or feel. Watching Wig Out! is like being invited to a party where everyone knows one another. You realize that you’re there only to watch them diss themselves (or “throw shade,” which the program’s glossary defines for us).
Besides Ms. Nina and Eric, father Lucian and the House mother, Rey-Rey (Nathan Lee Graham), run through a tired rehearsal of the aging drag queen trauma. Rey-Rey, according to the play’s (and the balls’) value system, is too old to win competitions in the fashion category in which she used to excel, so Lucian won’t permit her to perform. When she insists on taking the stage, she falls and fails, “crossed out” (eliminated from competition) by the judges. She’s mortified enough that she attempts suicide.
That melodramatic moment, however, happens practically offstage, on an elevated platform where Rey-Rey’s dressing room perches over stage left. The other characters find and rescue her, and Rey-Rey lives, shaking off her self-destructive impulse with a glass of water. She returns, chastened but reconciled to her new role as “grand” mother of the house. Graham’s over-the-top performance lends the proceedings some welcomed camp, and he plays Rey-Rey’s tragedy with enough of his tongue in his cheek to wring some good fun out of the plot’s twist.
King, as Lucian, delivers a version of his Sergeant Doakes character on Showtime’s Dexter, but here, his woodenness deflates his threat. The script requires him to manipulate his “children” sexually and emotionally, but it’s hard to care because his hulking presence feels empty and ineffectual.
The third couple, Venus (Joshua Cruz, in a sweet, clear performance of a femme character of the same name taken straight from Paris is Burning) and Loki (Sean Patrick Doyle, playing a hip-hop gay boy striving for “realness”), flounder on the constraints of sexual practices, as the masculine Loki resists Venus’s desire not to be the only bottom in the relationship.
At the play’s end, when Lucian appoints Venus the new mother of the house, she’s crowned like Miss America, though her elevation has just about as much significance. Landau stages the scene with the pageant reference no doubt in mind, but again, the potential parody is covered by McCraney’s ambivalence about whether his play should be a comedy or tragedy.
McCraney is a frequent award-winner, author of The Brothers Size (which has been produced in New York, London, and Ireland), and other plays that have made the rounds of the regionals, all after graduating from high school in 1999, college in 2003, and the Yale School of Drama with an MFA in playwrighting in 2007. Landau’s direction goes a long way toward harnessing the excesses of his script. She keeps the actors moving, creates shifting tones that layer in more emotion than the dialogue offers, and conjures through the proximities of placement more nuanced relationships than the actors can muster through words alone. She can do little about the fact that no sexual energy courses between any of the couples.
But even the talented Landau can’t redeem a script that requires each of its characters to at some point take center stage to deliver A Chorus Line-style monologue that begins, “My grandmother wore a wig” as an explanation for how they came to be . . . I don’t know, drag queens? Gay men? Emotionally stunted? Wig Out! needs more shaping, honing, and cutting before McCraney finds the kernel of its story and takes the true temperature of its heart.
The question remains: Why make a play from territory Paris is Burning covered to such memorable, searing effect 20 years ago? As it stands, Wig Out! doesn’t provide an answer. With more rewrites and re-stagings, someday perhaps it will. Too bad the question has to even be asked. It’d be great to see a smart, insightful play about African American gay men Off Broadway that’s about something other than drag balls, too.
The Feminist Spectator