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2010 Kennedy Center Honors Watch: Bill T. Jones

By Jacqueline Trescott

The Washington Post arts staff is keeping an eye on the doings of the 2010 Kennedy Center Honorees. This year's class is Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Merle Haggard, Jerry Herman and Bill T. Jones.

Bill T. Jones (Carlo Allegri / AP)

For those who want another view of the enormous talent of choreographer Bill T. Jones, hop on the bus and go catch "Fela!" in New York.

The choreography Jones created for this musical is a whirlwind of ritual and nightclub dances, formed in West Africa but repeated throughout the world. The musical, based on the life of Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, showcases traditional dance steps but with Jones' thumping acrobatic steps, shakes and poses. And the large cast is dancing almost every minute of the play, along with outrageous twists from the lead performer.

At a recent matinee the award winning actor and singer Kevin Mambo took over the lead of the Afrobeat pioneer, and Mambo was electric.
Jones won a Tony for his choreography, and the play also received Tonys for the best costume design and best sound design.

Looking to freshen up the run, Jones, who is also the director, had another surprise for his audience.

The role of Fela's mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti has been taken over by the incomparable Patti LaBelle. And we mean taken over. Lillias White, the Tony Award-winning singer who originated the part, was superb. But Miss Patti takes her couple of songs, delivered in the mournful tone of a folksong and then spins the notes into her customary chandelier shaking endings. This is not a snippet of a LaBelle concert; she is immersed in the character, a woman who inspired her son and a nation. She is almost unrecognizable, swathed in a traditional gown, colorful headwraps and dark-rimmed reading glasses. But once she starts humming and singing, LaBelle shows her legendary fire.

LaBelle performs intermittently until January 2, and Jones is due to be saluted in Washington the weekend of December 4 and 5.

By Jacqueline Trescott  | October 6, 2010; 8:02 AM ET
Categories:  Dance, Jacqueline Trescott, Kennedy Center  | Tags:  bill t. jones, kennedy center honors, patti labelle  
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