The Dead Mothers Club [What a FELA!]

My dear Aunt Almeda passed away last Thursday in Harlem, and I happened to be in NYC for the hugely successful Circle of Sisters Book Club this past weeked. So on Sunday before meeting up with some Smithie friends for the FELA! matinee, I woke up early and took the subway to Harlem. My cousin, who Aunt Almeda’s lived with until her end wasn’t living in Harlem during the one summer I interned at Scholastic Books back in 1998, so though, I’ve always meant to make it up there, this would actually be my first time in the legendary borough.

At that time, I didn’t know that when I got home, Betty would come down with a terrible cold, which would prevent me from boarding a plane with her to attend the funeral in St. Louis tomorrow. And somehow it felt like I was making the then-extra trip to Harlem as an ambassador of the Dead Mothers Club. To my great relief, there was more fellowship than tears, though I did find myself wondering not for the first time if it’s better to lose your mother slowly and terribly (which is how they lost their mother) or suddenly and terribly (which is how I lost my mother).

As it turned out, I had something in common with the title character of the bio-musical, FELA! The whole play takes place in the aftermath of a raid on Fela Kuti’s compound, which resulted in his mother being pushed out a window and dying suddenly and terribly from her injuries. This throws Fela into a crisis of political faith that inspires the show’s main dramatic question, “Will Fela leave Nigeria?”

The ghost of Fela’s mother is a main character in the show, and a few things about membership in the Dead Mother Club occurred to me while watching this extraordinary play.

1. One doesn’t really listen (I would actually argue one can’t really listen) to her or his mother until she is dead. If my mother were still alive, she’d probably be giving me long-distance advice and I’d be rolling my eyes on the other side of the phone as so many daughters do. As it is, I’ve followed the advice she gave me while she was alive to the letter, including “nothing beats a failure but a try” and “don’t try to change men. Men don’t change” and “don’t even try crack” ┬áto the letter since the age of 19. And I credit following that advice with many of my life’s successes.

2. Lots of emphasis gets put on nurturing in the media directed toward mothers, but all the stories that Fela tells about his mother involve her being fierce and intelligent. It made me realize how rare it is to find a story in which a “good black mother” isn’t portrayed as fabulous cook who thinks her son hung the moon. Fela respects his mother for being a feminist, community organizer and someone who stands up to authority. I think I’d much rather be a Mrs. Kuti than a Mrs. Crocker.

3. If you want your children to appreciate you, die. I’m sure that growing up with a militant mother wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns for Fela, but it’s those qualities that he drew inspiration from after she died. When I was little, I failed to appreciate having an awkward black nerd mom who adored Dr. Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, and making lame jokes that involved stating the obvious. Now anyone who knows me IRL will find that last sentence fascinating, because I pretty much just described myself.

So there you have it, the last in my FELA! series. Seriously, I cannot recommend this show enough — especially if you’re in the Dead Mothers Club.