The Midwest is often accused of parochialism — and Chicago theater assumed to be preoccupied with dysfunctional American families. But there has been the distinct flavor of Africa in the air these last few weeks. Chicago theaters have offered a fascinating and unexpected collected study of Africa, and the actions and ramifications of the European colonialists who invaded the borders of Nigeria, the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Namibia, leaving indelible and oft-traumatic marks on the mother continent.
The little clutch of very smart and interesting plays began with “The Convert” at the Goodman Theatre in early March. In Danai Gurira’s creation (which has now closed in Chicago and is about to open at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles), we saw African characters struggling with the consequences of British colonial masters who upended the native traditions and pitched Africans against each other.
Those who tried to thrive in a Eurocentric landscape now dominated by British rulers were playing a game they would never be allowed to win at the expense of white competitors. And even as their heads were bouncing off the pitifully low ceiling of achievement erected by the colonialist masters, they found themselves ostracized by their fellow citizens.
But Gurira goes further than that — she also explores the clash of two very different cultures, a collision that left many Africans newly dissatisfied with elements of a life that once felt fulfilling. In “The Convert,” Rhodesia is a dangerous mess.
Fast forward to “Fela,” set in 1970s Nigeria and another dangerous mess. The national tour of this Broadway musical by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis — which has my highest recommendation — is approaching its final weekend at the Oriental Theatre. I don’t think you should miss Jones’ choreography, nor the extraordinary central performance from Sahr Ngaujah as the late Fela Kuti. Ngaujah, who originated the part, is unlikely to be back in this role in Chicago.
When I saw the show a couple of weeks ago, “The Convert” was very much in my mind, even though “Fela” takes place in the aftermath of what Gurira was describing in the present tense, and even though the antagonist in the musical is not the British colonialists but an oppressive and militaristic Nigerian government anxious to slap down a great musician, showman and political activist calling for individual freedoms.
In some ways, Kuti is not much different from Gurira’s young black priest whose desire to succeed in the British-dominated Rhodesia rips him apart. Kuti had tasted the fruits of London and New York, sucked up those cities’ culture and music scenes, and, after returning to Lagos, tried to forge a new kind of Afrobeat music that would combine elements of all these nations and point a way forward for the people of Nigeria. But the Nigerian government — autonomous, but nonetheless itself an atrophied residue of colonial complexity — could not handle that. Instead, the uniformed thugs pushed Kuti closer and closer to the desperate edge, a fate Jones and Ngaujah brilliantly express through song and dance.
“Fela” has the feel of a great party in a huge and infectious sea of moral bankruptcy. Therein lies its force.
On Monday, a flawed but equally forceful new play opened at the Victory Gardens Theater. The work of a young writer named Jackie Sibblies Drury, it has an absurd mouthful of a title, “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.” It’s a piece about the struggles of American artists who want to write and perform a play about Africa and its colonialist past. Using a little amateur theater company as her surrogate, Sibblies Drury looks at the systematic extermination of the Herero tribe of Namibia by that nation’s German occupiers, posing this turn-of-the-last-century horror as a kind of proto-Holocaust. There were many atrocities in Africa at the hands of colonial masters, but it is hard to find one to compare with this.
But the play, which is also well worth seeing, is not just about the root of colonialist evil but far more about how we deal with it today. Who owns it? How should it be processed? How represented? How understood?
What to do? Fela had a heart-thumping solution, but as I sat in the Biograph Theatre on Monday watching Sibblies Drury’s play, the pain behind his joyous music was ringing in my ears.