Walk into the Eugene O’Neill Theatre these days and you enter the Broadway sensation, FELA, a spectacularly moving treatment of the life of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti. The production and the space in which it happens memorably join sociopolitical awareness with artistic creation. When you enter the theater, immediately you are enveloped by still images of the likes of Malcolm X and Angela Davis, occasional film clips, and printed slogans. The air pulsates with afrobeat rhythms. The dancers and musicians are energized throughout the show, the costumes and make-up stunning, the music and messages soul-stirring.
And the hairstyles are powerful. FELA’s hair design is the most diverse and memorable I’ve witnessed on a Broadway stage. It’s not often you leave a Broadway show thinking about a character’s hairstyle. I know that, before FELA, I never had. These hairstyles are as vibrant, powerful, diverse, and organic as the music of Afrobeat.
This impact is intentional. As Cookie Jordan, FELA’s hair and make-up designer, explained in a telephone interview, “Each dancer has her own style. No two hairstyles are alike. All the hair designs accentuate different styles of dancing.” A veteran Broadway stylist who has worked with such productions as South Pacific and Miracle Worker, Ms. Jordan was commissioned by Bill T. Jones to create a unique look for every performer in the show. “This show doesn’t look like anything anyone else has ever done and that’s a wonderful thing. The show is so authentic. Everyone seems so natural. It’s fantastic.”
Praveen Singh, who enjoyed FELA both on and off-Broadway, agrees. For Ms. Singh, “the variety of beautiful hairstyles enhanced the volume and velocity of each performance.” Eder Williams also was struck by the mix of hairstyles on stage. Says Ms. Williams, “the styles appeared West African, Pan-African, 1970s, current – I think it’s a mix as Bill T. Jones’ vision seems to be and what I remember from the old footage of Fela Kuti and his dancers.”
In fact, each dancer chose her own hairstyle. To inform the dancers’ choices, Ms. Jordan researched and prepared style books for the women to view. The pictures in the style book included designer pictures of African hairstyles as well as photographs of Fela Kuti’s real queens. Using the book, each dancer shopped for her look. “The unique look of each dancer makes the show more visually exciting to view,” says Ms. Jordan, who has done design for other Broadway shows. “This is unusual for Broadway,” Jordan continues, “because usually, on the Broadway stage, the silhouette of everyone on stage is the same. FELA is a piece about Fela Kuti’s life. It is very artistic and not historical, so we didn’t have to have the show’s palette be uniformally the same.”
Although FELA’s visual palette is strikingly varied, the design does need subtle controlling. Dancer Rujeko Dumbutshena, who wears her hair in an afro for the show, explains that, “Almost all the female members of the ensemble and some of the musicians are in wigs or hair pieces that were styled by the hair stylist so the styles are constant and do not change.” Wigs allow the stylists to control the look of the hairstyle and make sure it looks the same during each performance. “Wigs are a better option for us than braiding our hair in one style,” Ms. Dumbutshena says, “for what we hope will be a long run.” The wigs in FELA are made of human hair, and are hand tied and handmade. Some of the wigs have extensions of synthetic hair braided into the human hair of the wig, “like many black women who get braids do their hair,” Jordan remarks. With wigs, each dancer still has styling freedom with her own hair offstage (which, by the way, they all wear naturally) and there is no need for extremely long braiding sessions. To make sure the show maintains its design from performance to performance, Ms. Jordan attends the shows, takes notes and pictures and pours over them to make sure everything stays aesthetically on point.
Creating each wig once is a significant time commitment. Ms. Jordan told me that it took about 30 to 40 hours to make each wig, and each wig costs $2400. While the price tag on one wig may be steep, the cost of hairstyling stops there, so using the wigs was an economical – both regarding time and money – choice.
A London version of FELA is scheduled to begin in November. Ms. Jordan plans to use the same process to create the dancers’ wigs in that production. “We want FELA on the London stage to have an authentic process and look, too.”
While no specific hair products are used on the wigs for maintenance, all the dancers do use MAC Make-up to apply the striking dot patterns on their faces. As Jordan explains, “Fela Kuti’s wives wore the dots on their faces. The patterns were something they came up with themselves. And they used whatever make-up was at hand and applied their make-up themselves. So the dancers also do their own make-up.” Because the dancers had so much input in their hair and make-up design, “they really own their look,” Jordan notes.
Ms. Jordan also makes sure the look remains user friendly and healthy for the performers. During a visit to FELA about a month ago, my friends and I noticed that dancer Nicole DeWeever’s multi-braid ponytail went from lengthy (what we saw in a former performance months prior) to cropped. In a post-show conversation, Ms. DeWeever shared that the weight and tension of the wig was causing pain and pulling her own hair out. So the wig was adjusted to give Ms. DeWeever’s hair time to recuperate. Ms. Jordan explains, “When Nicole performs her African dance solo and goes into her fast and repeated head spins, the centrifugal force of her braid positioned to one side of her head was pulling on the wig’s pins and pulling Nicole’s hair out. Now the braid is very long, to the middle of her back. I remade the wig, putting the braid – the center of gravity – in the center of the head. Now the hair goes crazy when Nicole dances.”
FELA is more than a show. As Ms. DeWeever reflects, “When I perform, I draw on the spiritual and artistic energy of the dancers, musicians, the performers playing Fela, and the audience. We are all in this as creators, together. It is unlike any other show I have seen or been a part of. It is more than a show. It is an awe-inspiring experience to be a part of this production.” If you haven’t seen FELA, you are missing out on a socio-aesthetic wonder. See it for the moving music, the message, and definitely the hair.
Go to www.felaonbroadway.com for more information. See a clip of the fantastic show below!
by Nicole L.B. Furlonge