Are you familiar with Afrobeat? Is it something that you have enjoyed for years? If not, you will become familiar with the music after you see Fela!, on Broadway. This musical is full of songs and music by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the father of the Afrobeat. Fela! tells the traumatic story of his life growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, during the ’60s and ’70s when the government was corrupt, the people were poor and human life was trivialized. Anyone who opposed the government was marked a troublemaker and targeted for arrest, harassment and brutality.
When the audience meets Fela, he is putting on a show in his club, The Shrine. He is proclaiming that this is the last performance for him, his band and the African dancers who are part of his show because Nigeria has become too dangerous.
Fela shares his history with the audience. He also shares his love for music and his journey to find the music style that best suits him. One sees that at first being a singer and musician were paramount to him. His songs didn’t have to have any political connection. They weren’t songs that took a stand against the Nigerian government. This was a bit strange considering that his mother, Funmilayo, was politically active and in staunch opposition to the corrupt colonial government and the crooked soldiers. It took Fela a trip to Harlem, New York, during the years of the Black Power Movement, to realize his music was a means for him to focus on the injustices the people in Nigeria had to endure. He returned to Africa and began to rile up the people, first college students and then Nigerians in general. Fela became known as a troublemaker, and he was arrested and imprisoned several times.
The play demonstrates how Fela’s consciousness of the political movement in his country grew over time. Once the political opposition was born in him, he displayed it with bold passion through his songs. Throughout the production, Fela recounts the moments in his life. We hear his music and witness the dancers performing hip-shaking, knee-dropping, back-bending African dance moves. Fela decided to separate himself from the Nigerian government and create his own domain, but he was not above the corrupt authorities.What happens next is horrific. But I won’t say anymore. Fela’s story is troubling, sad and inspiring — it is all these things because it’s also true. This production is the masterpiece work of director and choreographer Bill T. Jones. It also has a book by Jones and Jim Lewis and was conceived by Jones, Lewis and Stephen Hendel.
Fela! is playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on West 49th Street and stars an outstanding, energized cast, including Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the role of Fela in the show’s off-Broadway run last year. Ngaujah has a fantastic singing voice and generates sexuality as he portrays a man who enjoyed his sex and was happy to tell anyone. The role of Fela is obviously very intense and so Ngaujah alternates in it with Kevin Mambo. Tony Award winner Lillias White plays Funmilayo, and she completely captures the strength and unrelenting dignity of the character. She struts across that stage as a confident African woman who has political views that go against the grain, and she doesn’t hesitate to voice them — even to her oppressors. White’s voice is exciting to listen to; it sends chills through your body. Saycon Sengbloh portrays Sandra, Fela’s girlfriend in New York who introduces him to the Black Power Movement. The amazing live music in the show is performed by Antibalas, a world-renowned band that specializes in Afrobeat music. The African dancers are absolutely marvelous to watch.