Just as choreographer/director Bill T. Jones was receiving his Kennedy Center Honors -- which were presented Dec. 5th at the awards event in Washington D.C. and broadcast on CBS Dec. 28 from 9-11pm -- his groundbreaking production of Fela! The Musical was wrapping up the last month of its Broadway run.
While this award brightly spotlighted his career and achievements, the show -- seen at the venerable Eugene O' Neill Theater on W. 49th St. -- ironically will no longer be seen in Manhattan. Now, having seen this propulsive and passionate telling of the late African music star Fela's life and politics, it's sad commentary on the economics of the Great White Way that the show closes.
Though the show will live on through touring as well as CD and DVD releases -- it will be moving on to Europe, Nigeria and internationally -- it's a shame to see such a unique and dynamic show leave the city just as Broadway is in need of productions that drawing in younger, alternative audiences.
Doing things on his own terms has always been part of Jones' career and life. Born in Bunnell, Florida, on February 15, 1952, the svelte athletic Jones started in track in high school, got a scholarship to study at the State University of New York (Binghamton) where he turned to choreography, dance and theater. Once he met his companion, Arnie Zane, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co. was founded in 1982. The two started making cutting-edge contemporary dance works that explicitly referred to social issues. His controversial piece, Still/Here (1995), addressed the suffering caused by HIV since Jones became infected and AIDS killed his great love in 1988.
Besides his avant-garde pieces, Jones has been directing and choreographing Broadway shows for years, winning Tony Awards for his choreography, in 2009 for Spring Awakening and then by co-producing creating the book, the dance and direction of Fela! The Musicial. Much honored and respected for his unique style and imagery, Jones has re-shaped dance, choreography, and theater over the last 30 years. And whether with his own company or such shows as Fela! The Musical, Jones continue to honor his ideals -- the ones he shared with his late partner and other collaborators.
Earlier this year, Jones gave a short interview about his work with Fela! in anticipation of the Tonys.
Q: The ending of Fela! is a triumph. You make people who see the show change their perspective on fighting back after seeing that ending.
BTJ: Or at least ask themselves if they have one. When he says, "This is not about me." The script has changed so much in seven years. However, that line was there from the beginning. "This is not about Fela, this is about you. Whose coffin are you willing to carry?" That's a strong one; carrying coffins, what does that mean? But then you have to think about how your own...
Q: Ands what you had written on the coffins.
BTJ: When this was first done I insisted that everybody in the cast do one off- Broadway, so that is what that was. When you move to Broadway, you're not really allowed to decorate your own coffins and so on like that, but we could do it off-Broadway, and that spirit was brought onto Broadway.
Q: Fela would have these all night long orgiastic performances. His first American albums like Live! or Zombie gave a pretty good idea on what his whole community was, and to see this scene in this production, even if it's only implied in the musical, is just amazing; I can't get over it.
BTJ: We had Hair years ago. I'm a part of the '60s. There's lots of things with gay themes and so on.
Q: But you were going against corporations and going against things that people didn't want to say.
BTJ: Well, yeah that is true, isn't it?
Q: And thank you.
BTJ: Thank Fela. It was in his spirit. But how far can you go? Because this is a capitalist enterprise...
Q: Can you delve more into that?
BTJ: No, I can't actually. You understand what I'm talking about. We can't speak so freely because in a way it sounds less than generous and it sounds a bit hypocritical. The critique in it.
Q: The important thing is that there is a way to get this kind of voice that can evolve to this stage. The fact that it's at that point.
BTJ: It's something good about this time maybe, right?
Q: That's what I'm saying.
BTJ: I think the positive thing is that you can do it.
Q: And it's part of a force that helps keep the balance, a balance which hasn't always been struck.
BTJ: Well I hope so. That line about "Make me your next black president." How that played in the summer of 2007 when the campaign was heating up and all this symbolism, and how it plays now. Every night when I hear Kevin say that I sort of scan the room, because when we were doing it off-Broadway there was a critical mass of lefties I think, and they all kind of got it.
Now I think we're all a bit wiser and we realize how complicated it is, and I watch what is the response, and people who are maybe rank and file Broadway people, I'm not sure; could I tell who is a Democrat who is a Republican? They're there in a Broadway theater.
Q: Can you talk about the process of how the choreography and direction, how you brought that about?
BTJ: In general?
Q: That's the only way to approach that subject.
BTJ: Well, first and foremost we had to acknowledge whom we're dealing with, what he was truly like. And that's its own thing; I'm glad that Focus Features is doing a feature film on him because some things can only be done in a film.
Q: I'm excited about that.
BTJ: Yeah, me too. And it will be a [done by a] great director; Steve McQueen. The first 20 minutes or half an hour of our assignment was to do several things. An audience that didn't know this man, they've got to be taught why should I be sitting and watching him?
So I've got to learn something about Nigerian independence; I've got to learn something about what Africa meant for an African; I have to learn about America and Africa, the back and forth between the two of them; and I've got to make these people sitting in the audience understand that this is worth your attention as an artist.
Then let's talk about his art, and you can't talk about his art without talking about his politics, and you can't talk about his politics without talking about his life. So by just paying attention to the man we had to make certain choices about storytelling, about clarity. If you ever watch his videotapes of him and his wives, you can imagine in a post-feminist era, there was something raw and amazing about that, but how do you show that?
Q: You could make a production about how this got made and got done. The genesis of getting this show made from its inception to off-Broadway is a play in and of itself.
BTJ: You know you could, couldn't you? It would be very complicated and it would be dangerous. Let me give you an example; everybody on this show -- and I say this with love -- but I remember the day we'd done very off Broadway and we came into the first day of rehearsal for the Broadway production. There was this kind of meet and great. Everyone's touchy-feely and there's this African feeling, this New Age feeling, and then we go to the quote, production.
Now in that room had been all sort of colored people and so on, but when we got into the production room there were two black people; myself and my associate director.
What does that mean? I don't know what that means. So I'm saying if you're going to tell the story, the story is actually talking about who we are, the theater world as a community, as an industry, and what does it mean to be part of something that is changing?
Q: There's a triumph to it isn't there?
BTJ: We shall see. No, you're right. We're already there in a way, aren't we?
Q: Also in its effect internationally once it goes on tour.
BTJ: Yes, there's even more potential for it to grow in terms of its critique [of society and other things].