Water No Get Enemy

I’m no native informant. But I gather that the song featured prominently in the Broadway show Fela! — “Water No Get Enemy” — means something like “nobody hates something as useful as water.” Make yourself as indispensable as this, goes the implied wisdom, and any detractors you gain will just look silly. An appropriate motto for a musician like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, for whom music making seemed as necessary as food and drink. Also an audacious one, as the defiant composer of “Water No Get Enemy” well knew the many enemies his music gained. Is it still gaining them?

A Broadway musical with the emphatic title Fela! is unlikely to present any portrait less than adulatory of its subject, the godfather of Afrobeat. And The Eugene O’Neill Theatre on a Saturday night is probably the wrong place to start a nuanced conversation about the life and legacy of a man as contradictory as he was compelling. Still, there is an irony in Bill T. Jones, an out gay choreographer, creating this evening-length paean to compulsory heterosexuality and plural marriage. And reading the current issue of Wax Poetics, which features Fela on the cover, leads me to some contradictions that Jones’ book and choreography elide. Against the image of Kuti the glamorous rebel and dutiful son (of his mother, of Nigeria) must be balanced the remembrance of those who worked with him: sometimes violently autocratic, unrepentantly oversexed, unwilling to designate successors to the sound he created and controlled. In some respects, he reminds me of James Brown, his idol. Although, unlike Brown, Kuti came from a relatively privileged and politically-connected family, drawing his most daring black power pronouncements, I cannot help but think, from an entitlement that only someone with his particular birthright could have sensed. 
Fela’s sincere love of his people and his determination to stand against a corrupt postcolonial regime cannot be doubted. But the one-sidedly celebratory portrayal of him in Fela!, while good enough to bring deserved attention to him, is insufficient to the task of telling his story in all its complexity. The actor playing Fela (it was Kevin Mambo the night we went) takes and holds center stage for the entire show, ceding it only once to the ghost of his mother Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti (Lillias White), an act of filiopiety that only adds to the messianic charisma the story endows him with. From a book perspective, it really is a one-man show, even if that technical identification is immediately overturned by the ensemble of musicians and dancers who, absent full theatrical characterization, assume all the more astonishing a stage presence. We are still seduced by the charismatic hero. 
And who wouldn’t be seduced? The vibe is so electric it had even the ushers jiving in the aisles. Seeing Fela! amidst the misery of the mainstream coverage of dead, dying and desperate black bodies in Haiti (while perhaps too close for comfort to Condoleeza Rice’s notorious night at the theater in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina) at least provided the needed affirmation of the joyous, living black dancers honoring and mourning the dead. The endurance of the ancestors; the ecstatic power of music to clarify our lamentations; these are what Fela! the musical can show.

So where does this leave us with Charles Isherwood’s recent worry that Fela! might be a new kind of minstrelsy? Has water met a new enemy in our pained attempts at racial sensitivity? Isherwood’s claim forces a distinction between authentic African culture and staged spectacle. And it exaggerates the power of a white audience (but was it only a white audience? I don’t remember it so) to ultimately settle what a show means, or fails to. But if we grant that black performance on Broadway is premised upon the kind of interracial situation that we scornful as “minstrelsy,” we might recall that the very origins of the black musical were implicated in this “new” minstrelizing of Africa. 

In Dahomey, which played 53 performances in 1903, was a play about black Christianizing colonists to Africa. The product of the cream of black New York’s creative class, In Dahomey included Will Marion Cook’s music, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s lyrics, and featured the legendary comedy duo Bert Williams and George Walker in performance. 
The New World-born Williams and Walker set on their path to In Dahomey years earlier, after being hired to play Africans at a World’s Fair, when the “real” ones failed to show. Insofar as its improvisatory form can be reconstructed, In Dahomey is a send-up of the imperial absurdities entailed in such essentialisms and substitutions, which commence black theater as we know it. Despite elements that might seem dated, even offensive (in a word, minstrel) the black American portrayal of Africans on Broadway inaugurated by In Dahomey foregrounded precisely the song, dance, and music that Isherwood fears makes “the presentation of African culture … a feast of exotic pageantry [with] the potential, at least, to reinforce stereotypes of African people as primitive and unsophisticated.” 
To which we might respond: if you really are still tempted to take the exuberant embodiment of black expressive cultures as a sign of inferiority, isn’t that one on you?

Tavia Nyong'o

Tavia Nyong’o is a cultural critic and professor of African American studies, American studies, and theater studies at Yale University. He writes on art, music, politics, culture, and theory. His first book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (2009), won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theatre and performance studies, and a new book, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, is forthcoming from NYU Press in the fall of 2018. Nyong’o has published in venues such as Radical History Review, Criticism, GLQ, TDR, Women & Performance, WSQ, The Nation, Triple Canopy, The New Inquiry, and n+1. He is co-editor of the journal Social Text.