What a breath of fresh air Fela! is. The musical biography about Afro-beat musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti sits in stark contrast to the usual fare Broadway ushers to the stage. The musical is filled with loud colors, thumping drum beats, manic dancing and a riveting story about one of Nigeria’s most beloved citizens.
The musical hits Atlanta’s Fox Theatre this weekend as a stopover on its national tour. It was a no brainer to schedule Atlanta as it represents the African-American’s southeastern cultural hub. The ladies and their gents were decked out to the nines to take in the Jay-Z, Will Smith produced spectacle. The Fox stage was remolded to mirror the Shrine club in Lagos, Nigeria circa 1978. These were the heyday for Fela who was the hottest musician on the continent. He introduced the world to his newly crafted Afrobeat. Afrobeat blended funk, jazz, Yourba and highlife with a special emphasis on the percussion. Fela’s lyrics were incendiary, skewering the corrupt military dictatorship that held down Nigeria in the late 70s. The Shrine sat in the worst part of Lagos and served as a refuge from the cascading violence and chaos that swirled about.
Fela! is presented almost as a one-man play although there are plenty of other actors populating the stage. The story is relayed by Fela (Duain Richmond) and the supporting cast sings and dances to the string of his words. It was curious to have such a marquee name like Destiny’s Child Michelle Williams who sang beautifully yet didn’t get to contribute much dialog. Regardless, the format worked in flipping the story through the scenes of his life.
We are first introduced to Fela as a young man. He is just finding his place in this world when he discovers the rich music of his homeland. We travel to London where he furthers his musical education. We jump the pond to Los Angeles where he falls in with the Black Panther movement which nurtures his political beliefs. He also meets Sandra (Michelle Williams) who would play a pivotal role in his development. His mother, Funmilayo (Melanie Marshall), always looms large throughout the musical, serving as his inspiration and rock to lean on.
Fela returns home to Africa as his musical legend has begun to grow. Given his education and upbringing, it should come as little surprise that Fela rebels against the repressive establishment government. It should come as even less surprise that the government becomes intent on silencing this popular dissenter. This internal tension between the man and the government who enslaves the country he loves becomes our focal point.
The cast of Fela! is strong. Though, they largely play a supporting role to Fela, often they the show with their bold vocals and lively dances. Melanie Marshall and Michelle Williams particularly stood out for their strong female influence that shaped Fela’s way. Both had the vocal power to give the backbone to these imposing women. Duain Richmond really outdoes himself in the title role. Fela’s passion and fervor really leak through in his performance. As a native of Sierra Leon, he also brings the dialect and the cultural familiarity to the role.
The set design was very authentic and swept you away to 70s Nigeria. Throughout it all, the Shine backdrop remained constant. A video screen perched above the stage would translate new locales to our shifting brains.
If Richmond’s performance was the highlight of the evening then the Afrobeat music and elaborate dance sequences slid in as a close second. The stage absolutely comes alive through the pulse of the drums and blazing saxophone. The dancers move like they just can’t contain themselves. In looking around at the audience, you can tell that the feeling is infectious. The music and the dance are the heartbeat of Fela, and this musical can’t be defined without them.
At the end of the day, Fela! is just a lot of fun. Granted, this is a very moving story about an important figure in African history. I’m certainly not discounting that, but its a story you want to put yourself into. You want to feel the rhythm and become possessed by the sound. You want to roll up a fat one with Fela and tell the government where they can shove it. It bundles up his revolutionary passion with the soundtrack of Africa. It makes you wish Broadway would step out of its comfort zone a little more often.
Author: Mark Runyon