Broadway usually knows a good thing when it sees it. Let someone hit it big with a self-referential comic spree like The Producers, and it doesn't take long before someone else comes along with Spamalot. Mamma Mia! leads to Jersey Boys, and Rent spawns Spring Awakening.
So why has it taken more than 10 years since the sensational success of The Lion King for another musical to look at Africa as a source of compelling stories and irresistible rhythms? (Please, let's leave Tarzan out of this.) A mere handful of musicals--starting with the groundbreaking hit In Dabomey, in 1903, and including short-lived rarities like the 1962 Kwamina--have brought the music and dance of Africa to American theater audiences. The Lion King should have turned that trickle into a flood.
It didn't. So for now, we are making do with Bill T. Jones's Fela!, which isn't even on Broadway--it's been scheduled for a limited September run at 37 Arts. Devotees of world music will recognize the title character as the incomparable Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died in 1997.
Melding traditional African percussion with free-form American horn and guitar riffs, Kuti pioneered Afro-Beat, the successor to High Life as Africa's dominant homegrown music. He played in Europe with Western rock stars and recorded for Western labels, but he remained in Nigeria, lacing his funky, drawn-out songs with outspoken critiques of the country's corrupt governments and sometimes landing in jail.
Taking his cue from the Kuti songs that provide the score, Jones is mixing and matching genres in the show, which Jones wrote with Jim Lewis. Directing as well as choreographing, be is calling on the ensemble to perform numbers that incorporate African social dance, traditional African steps, and what one cast member calls "typical Bill T. Jones postmodern movement. " So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that Jones has pulled together an unusual cast. Their homes span several continents, their bios are short on standard musical theater experience but long on stints with companies like Urban Bush Women and Les Bailem Africains.
Like several of her castmates, Aimee Graham is an African American in the literal sense. Being in a show about Kuti has a special meaning for her. "I was born in Africa," she says. "But you grow up in France like a little French girl." At 15, when her parents took her back to the Central African Republic for an extended vacation, she had a change of heart. "I realized, 'You might be French on your passport, but you're African.' "When she came to New York to pursue dance, she landed in Forces of Nature, a contemporary …