I got there late or so I thought. After a long stressful day, I needed an escapism and "Fela!" was exactly what the doctor ordered. Colorful, dramatic, musical, political, even sexy; "Fela" is an experience, not merely a musical performance. Even the scent of it, some incense that permeates the theater, leaves with you.
Presented by Shawn Carter a.k.a Jay-Z, Will & Jada Pinkett Smith, Ruth & Stephen Hendel, and Fela Broadway LLC in association with The National Theatre of Great Britain, "Fela!" is based on the life of famed Nigerian Afrobeat artist and political activist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and inspired by authorized biography, "Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore."It's directed and choreographed by Tony and Obie Award winning artistic director, Bill T. Jones.
Back to the experience...
Rushing through the lobby I see muscled brown skin, tight plaid pants, an elaborate hairstyle, and bright smiles flash ahead of me entering the theater. Sexy black men always get my attention, but these were not just mere men they were "Fela!" performers, men trained to express themselves through the art of dance. Of course, I followed right behind them toward my seat.
Once seated I finally take a long look at the stage. WOW! There's so much color! Shades of red, green, yellow, blue accost my sight. Beautiful black women and men dance provocatively, some in traditional African costuming and tribal paint. Immediately, I'm mentally transported out of LA and into the famous 70's Nigerian night club, "The Shrine," performance home of Fela Kuti.
By the time the uber-talented Sahr Ngaujah takes the stage as Fela I'm "all in" for a musical journey and much needed history lesson. I say much needed because as an African-American I'd heard of Fela Kuti but not his indelible impact on global music and culture. And I am not alone. If you know Bob Marley then you should know Fela Kuti too.
Ngaujah amazingly introduces us to the man, the artist, and the activist through one of most energetic performances I've seen in a long time. Not merely an actor playing a musician, Ngaujah passionately plays the saxophone, sings his heart out, dances, and tirelessly connects us with the music that became Kuti's weapon against the corrupt Nigerian government.
The first act introduces Fela's upbringing and musical inspirations and involves audience participation. As Kuti Ngaujah instructs us to shout "Yeah! Yeah!" and gyrate our hips as if moving hands on a clock. The exercise creates the right atmosphere for Ngaujah to have fun with the audience. He even offers a theater-goer a pull of some weed (probably just tobacco) which the guy eagerly accepts!
Through a fabulously exuberant showcase of song, modern African and tap dance, we journey from the formation of Kuti's first band in London to his introduction to the Black Panther Movement in Los Angeles. Totally inspired and empowered by the Black Power movement, Kuti returns to his homeland to challenge the powers-that-be.
The second act chronicles Kuti's political movement using his "music as a weapon." Scathing ridicule of Nigerian government and soldiers in songs like "Zombie" result in him being jailed, violently attacked, and his elderly mother being killed. But it doesn't stop him; he further seeks direction from his deceased mother's spirit. Her beautiful operatic yet haunting voice guides and consoles him in his darkest moment.
Overall, "Fela!" is a wonderful theater presentation that should not be missed! For any lover of live performance, dance, and music it's a must-see experience. And likewise for those who understand the power of music as a means of social change it's an inspiration. Visit the Ahmanson website for tickets.