‘Fela!’ Triumphs in Music and Message
“I witnessed a miracle tonight,” wrote Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson after seeing “Fela!,” a theatrical production inspired by the life and music of legendary Nigerian musician, bandleader and political activist Fela Kuti. Since opening as an off-Broadway production in 2008, the show has gained momentum and celebrity interest from Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who all signed on as co-producers. Thompson has signed on as assistant producer.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born to a Protestant minister and an activist mother. Using Afrobeat music as a medium for raw critiques of the Nigerian military regime, Kuti fearlessly attacked injustice, oppression and corruption. Kuti left behind a formidable body of music—nearly 50 albums, including the recently released Live in Detroit 1986(Knitting Factory)—a 3-CD set containing the first new material from Fela since 1992. The Broadway production approaches his music and enduring legacy with a sense of reverence, and producer Stephen Hendel is determined to do Kuti's work justice.
“I discovered a Fela CD by chance," said Hendel, who began developing the production in 2000. “I was overwhelmed by his sound and by what he stood for." The CD propelled Hendel to create a stage show that portrayed “the extraordinary life of a man who sacrificed himself, refusing to give up music as an expression of the people’s call for social justice.” Hendel enlisted award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones to direct the play and, together with writer Jim Lewis, assembled a group of musicians, actors, dancers and technicians for workshops.
When “Fela!” opened on Broadway, its cast performed to an audience of half a million people over a 15-month run. The show won three Tony Awards in 2010 for its choreography, costume design and sound design. It was also received enthusiastically by such musicians as Stevie Wonder, Branford Marsalis, Aretha Franklin and Ornette Coleman.
Kuti’s music is played live by Antibalas, a leading force in contemporary Afrobeat. During a recent March 27–April 15 run at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, Antibalas’ delivered a powerhouse performance of Fela's classic anthems, including “Zombie” and “Expensive Shit,” as well as “Dance Of The Orishas,” a climactic moment of free-jazz. The dynamic and charismatic Sahr Ngaujah stars as Kuti, backed by a supporting cast of Melanie Marshall as Funmilayo, Kuti's mother, and Paulette Ivory as Sandra Smith (now Izsadore)—a member of the Black Panther Party who influenced Kuti’s sociopolitical consciousness. The set design recreates and captures the magical atmosphere of Kuti’s legendary Lagos, Nigeria, club, The Shrine.
In addition to being visually and musically explosive, “Fela!” elucidates Kuti's politics and run-ins with the law. It contextualizes his convictions in relation to U.S. civil rights activism and illuminates African religion and culture. It also demonstrates how African rhythms, calypso, James Brown, John Coltrane, Chano Pozo and Martin Luther King Jr. all informed both his music and political stance.
The show is currently back on tour in the United States following a run in Europe and in Kuti’s beloved Lagos. For more information, visit the show’s official website.