The story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti is one of courage under fire, fortitude, and the power of music as a vehicle for change. His life was an inspiration, his music was the sound of a generation and his legend was bigger than his small stature would indicate. Fela’s story was ripe for the stage, and it’s the perfect narrative for theater.
Fela! the musical is a journey into the life of a man who didn’t fear death, hated the corrupt Nigerian government but loved his country dearly and lived for music. You might have arrived at the theater with a question mark about who he was, but by the end of the show, you know why the exclamation point is so necessary for Fela!
You go in ready to be entertained, and come out with the notes still dancing in your head, moving through your hips and the story sitting on your heart. It educates while it entertains and that’s part of the beauty of Fela!
The theater is transformed into “The Shrine,” Kuti’s nightclub in Lagos. The moment Sahr Ngaujah comes out on stage as Fela, we’re taken on a ride through the Nigerian activist and musician’s formative years. We learn how his music goes from high life party beats to his creation of a new sound called “Afrobeat.” We also see how Fela meets Sandra Izsadore, the woman who ended up playing a big part in his life as an activist during his visit to the United States. The show takes us through his life as a public enemy number one and archenemy of the Nigerian government. “Water no get enemy” but Fela surely did have a few. We learn of his 200 arrests, countless beatings and the heaviest loss he suffered at the hands of the very government that is the subject of his politically-charged songs.
Fela! is a full experience, vocally, visually and totally. We’re treated to sounds of his music, which is accompanied by a full band and sounds of drums, trumpets and guitars. You can’t help but tap your feet and move your hips. And the energy is through the roof the whole two and a half hours.
But most importantly, beyond the mesmerizing hip ‘twerks’ of the dancers (or “Queens” as they’re referred to), there’s the message of the musical, which was really what Fela’s legacy was. “Whose coffin are you willing to carry?” What are you willing to stand for?
Three Tony Awards later, Fela! has captured our hearts for its message and music and the man whose life asked for it. This musical is unlike anything that has ever been on Broadway, so how did the story of a Nigerian musician and world-renowned rebel with a cause end up there? Through a series of fortunate events.
How Fela! Got to Broadway
In 2000, Stephen Hendel bought one of Fela’s records by chance, listened to it and was immediately captured by the beauty and intensity of the music. The lyrics were meaningful, and he was drawn to the way Fela used music to express his discontent wish social injustice and corruption in Nigeria. Hendel read more about Fela and realized that his was a story that needed to be told.
Once Hendel obtained the rights to Fela’s music in 2003, he collaborated with legendary Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, and they began to assemble the team to make the show happen. Over 4 years, they brought together the band, scenic designers, technicians and dancers. They also found their Fela in the amazing American-born/Sierra Leone-decendant actor Sahr Ngaujah. Through regular work sessions, they played with ideas and improvised and the show started coming together.
In 2007, they had a small preview of Fela! and invited a few people to see what they had so far. Just over half of the current show we see now is from these previews. More tweaking happened and in the Summer of 2008, Fela opened Off-Broadway at the 37 Arts theater in New York City. During that time, ?uestlove of The Roots came to see the show and he was blown away. When he got home, he was moved to email 200 industry people, telling them how awesome it was, demanding they do see it: “its uncut. its true to the vision. its amazing! there is no option. i expect death to be the only reason why you did NOT see this production.”
They listened, and soon after, Jay-Z and Beyonce went to see it. Then Alicia Keys, Charlize Theron, and many more celebrities filled the seats to watch Fela!. Soon after, tickets were hard to get for the 300-seat theater, for the 5-night-a week show. It was a critical success and was getting so much buzz. The team realized that Broadway was next!
Fela! opened on Broadway in the Fall of 2009 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, with Jay-Z, Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith on board as Producers. The 15-month run was a huge success, and half a million people came to see the story of the legend, including the Artistic Director of the National Theatre of London. When he saw the show, he was so amazed by it that he asked if they could bring it to England. No Broadway show has ever been asked to create a repertoire of itself in London, until Fela! Nevertheless, a second team was trained in London by Bill T. Jones and team to run a parallel production of Fela!, and it was broadcast in over 400 theaters around the world. In fact, the cast of Fela! today is half of the original Broadway company and half from the London run. This is also historic because Broadway shows never tour with their original casts.
The show introduces Kuti’s legacy to a new generation that’s largely unaware to his contributions as to the world, musically and politically. Fela! tells us about the man whose passion for social justice and love of his people led to countless losses and pain, yet he never stopped standing for his beliefs. At the end of the show, you walk out inspired. While also trying to figure out how those dancers moved their hips like rubber. It’s edutainment (education and entertainment) at its’ best and one of the most amazing theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.
The show is on a national tour across the United States. It’s currently in Chicago until April 15, 2012. Below are the rest of the dates:
Boston MA – Cutler Majestic Theatre – April 24-May 6, 2012
Baltimore, MD – Gilliam Concert Hall – May 15-May 20, 2012
Houston, TX – Jones Hall – June 5-June 10, 2012
St. Paul, MN – Ordway Center for Performing Arts – June 12-June 17, 2012
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EBONY.com, Contributing Writer