“NY Times” theater critic Ben Brantley’s reviews are a must-read for me. Like the best of the best whether I agree or disagree with his takes is irrelevant. I always come away feeling that I’ve learned something new – because even after all these years Brantley himself seems to be discovering something fresh from each and every show he analyzes.
And then at the other end of the “Times” spectrum is critic Charles Isherwood, whose byline shouldn’t even be gracing the same page as Brantley’s. Normally I avoid Isherwood’s predictable, clichéd non-think pieces but the title Feeling Unsettled At a Feel-Good Show in this past Sunday’s “Times” (1/31/10) caught my eye. The essay is the result of Isherwood’s conflicted response to the Broadway hit “Fela!” about Nigeria’s iconic Afrobeat creator and political activist, directed and choreographed by the legendary Bill T. Jones. Four paragraphs into the piece Isherwood explains, “As much as I enjoyed the show…it left me with lingering questions about the depiction of the African milieu it evoked. In short, the emphasis in ‘Fela!’ on the spectacle of African culture tilted the show a little too closely toward minstrelsy.”
In short, Isherwood is upset that he was forced to think, to confront a reaction he didn’t expect, instead of being merely entertained. (Which led me to wonder, did he not get the memo that thinking is part of his job requirement?) But instead of looking in the mirror and asking himself why he’s disturbed that “the way the dancers weave in and out of the audience repeatedly seems ingratiating, a sort of seduction that almost sexualizes the performers,” as Isherwood puts it (and what is wrong with this sexualizing other than the fact that it makes a particular theater critic uncomfortable?) he does something even more outrageous than any touchy-feely performer would dare. He blames the show!
After expounding upon the production’s women in their “flesh-baring ensembles” who “strut around the stage and the theater looking exotic, imperious and sexy” Isherwood adds that, “So too do the male members of the ensemble, who also bare a lot of flesh but have little to do other than sing and dance. Hence my discomfort.” Considering “Fela!” is a show directed and choreographed by a gifted and unapologetic dance man Isherwood’s attitude is damn condescending. “Little to do other than sing and dance” implies that singing and dancing are a step below the speaking of dialogue. Isherwood complains that only the title character gets to have his say, while ignoring the fact that all those hardworking performers rendered mute are actually emoting through their bodies. Which he’d realize if he’d chosen to set aside his preconceived notions of what a musical should be and simply watch this form of theater through its choreographer’s lens. Isherwood is only freaked out because “Fela!” doesn’t adhere to what he believes a Broadway show to be – with spoken words privileged above body language. (He later adds, “Although some of the dancers have individual moments, none are given individual voices.” Only if by “voices” Isherwood means actual words. My guess is that Isherwood is not listening to distinct voices emerging through a physical form because he can’t transcend his own limited way of seeing.)
Indeed, Isherwood admits as much when he writes, “Would I feel any discomfort if I were attending an African dance recital at Dance Theater Workshop? Probably not.” But for Isherwood the Broadway setting is “a little like being in a Disneyland version of Africa.” Since Disney seems to own most of Broadway these days (has he not heard of the Disneyland version of Africa called “The Lion King”?) one wonders why Isherwood is overly sensitive only to “Fela!” being Disney-fied – so much so that he faults the production for the context he’s seeing it in. “’Fela!’ sometimes seems to turn its ostensible characters into flashy sideshow entertainments, to elevate sensation over substance,” he even laments. But isn’t this what Fela Kuti himself did? First came the sensation (his music) followed by his substance (his politics). Isherwood couldn’t even get past his own unnerving sensations – so how could he ever hope to experience the substance within “Fela!”? Now that I think of it, perhaps I did learn something from Isherwood after all. When it comes to a critic like this it’s best to blame the messenger.