Review by Marc Alexander


I’ve been a semi-devotee of Fela Kuti since one of my best friends slid me a tape of the legend back in the early 1990’s. For me, at the time Fela’s music was like rediscovering James Brown – only with a Nigerian patois. I couldn’t distinguish all of his lyrics, but the horns and the beats spoke deeply into my ancestry and I became a fan of his from the first time I pushed “play”. So, it was with eager ears and eyes that I sat in my mezzanine seat and ingested all of the sights, sounds, and movements of Fela! – the hit play that danced upon Los Angeles’s Ahmanson Theater from December 13th  – January 22nd.

Fela, born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, in Nigeria to a feminist/activist mother and Baptist minister/school principal father, is one of the most iconic musical figures in history.  His activism and continuous agitation of the questionable policies of Nigeria’s government garnered him a worldwide cult following.

Fela’s musical odyssey took him from London to Ghana to the US and back to Nigeria where he perfected “Afrobeat”, the music with which his name has become synonymous. The production, which began off Broadway as the brainchild of Stephen Hendel, Jim Lewis, and director/choreographer Bill T. Jones, is now being brought to audiences by current show biz luminaries Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, and Will and Jada Smith.

The musical, conceived of as more of an homage than as a pure biography, chronicles the period in the late 70’s which was the most fiery period in the entertainer’s life. This was the time when Fela was at his agitating best; and songs like “Water No Enemy”, “Expensive S#@$”, “Zombie” and “Coffin Head of State” showcased his brilliance as a bandleader, a horn player, and provocateur.

The stage was dressed as the infamous/famous “Shrine” – the name given to his often-raided performance space in Nigeria. This vantage gave theatergoers a peek inside Fela’s creative world, as we watched the frenetic and brightly colored tribute to him in sound and movement. The production’s dancers could easily be stars in Cirque Due Soliel, as they isolated body parts – seemingly moving through two or three rhythms at the same time.

The accompanying band, with its blaring horns and hip-moving beats, touched a place deep inside me, the same place where performers like Sly and the Family Stone, P-Funk, and The Roots, get to me and won’t allow me to be still.

Then there were two female singers, one who played “Sonya Isadore,” Fela’s American lover, and the other played Fela’s mother “Funmilayo.”   The ladies literally blew the roof off the Ahmanson with their voices. Both women garnered standing ovations, and either would give any opera singer a run for her aria.

The show was amazing in all aspects, but what really had my jaw a-loose and hanging was the amount of energy and athleticism the performers displayed. They easily had the endurance and skill of any Olympian and rhythm for days.

Lead actor Sahr Ngaujah had the audience up and participating throughout the performance and his “yabis” (a give and take exchange with the audience) kept the audience howling in between songs.

There were moments when you could feel the crowd holding its collective breath because the music and dance numbers had reached such an intense party pitch. It was like you were vicariously sweating through their performances. The play culminated as it began with a flourish of sound, gyration, and Afro-beat, bringing everyone to their feet and leaving them wanting more.
But don’t just take my word for it, take a listen to a song from the musical “Fela!” and see and hear for yourself.

Marc Alexander is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer and purveyor of urban culture.

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