There’s a strident buzz on Broadway, and it is FELA!
A musical about Fela Anikulapo Kuti, human rights activist, composer and creator of the musical genre, Afrobeat. After a brief stint off Broadway in September/October 2008, some key players decided that FELA! was worth gracing the Broadway arena thanks to a stellar choreography by Director, Billy T. Jones and performance by the cast, which included Sahr Ngaujah as Fela. With Jay-Z and Will and Jada Smith as presenters, the show has garnered even more popularity.
Set in Fela’s nightclub in Lagos, which he popularly referred to as “The Shrine,” it tells the story of Fela’s rise to revolutionary consciousness, fame and notoriety as he set off to challenge, through his music, the corrupt Nigerian government and the multi-nationals that keep them there.
But who was Fela Anikulapo Kuti? He came from a family of activists in Nigeria. His mother, Funmilayo Kuti, was a feminist and anti-colonialist. But it took him living in America in the 1960’s to truly understand what his mother stood for and his purpose. The musical expounds on this as well as the deep love and respect that son and mother held for each other. Played astoundingly by Lillias White, Funmilayo encourages him to be brave in a system that is bent on destroying him for his revolutionary ideas. Be prepared to react during these emotionally charged scenes.
Fela is known for having surrounded himself with several women at a time in his communal compound in Lagos, Nigeria. In the late 70’s, he married twenty-seven women, whom he referred to as his Queens. Fela’s passion for women was more than skin deep. Billy T. Jones portrays these women as strong, respectable women who played a key part in Fela’s beliefs and struggles. They are not only his lovers, they are his friends, his backbone--a refreshing contrast to the popular portrayals expressed by social commentators and critics.
Of course the music and dancing are the important ingredients of the show, and a big part of what draws people over and over again. Some of his classic hits, including “water no get enemy,” “suffering and smiling,” and “zombie,” a musically precise satire on the Nigerian cold blooded military, is played by a band that does justice to his sounds.
The show appeals to the senses equally; females gyrate in colorful gear, men move spontaneously and with buoyancy to the rhythm of the drums, truly capturing the dance moves of both Africa and afrobeat.
The musical is performed by a mostly African-American cast. Fela, whose music and revolutionary lifestyle was inspired by the black power movement and music of the 60’s/70’s, would have been proud.
Anyone interested in the complex dynamics of a country post independence, and a man who challenged a corrupt system; coupled with the raw, sensual and revolutionary sounds of afrobeat will not be disappointed.
Fela Kuti passed away in 1997 due to complications from AIDS. He was 57 years old.