Don’t be shy: Fela! is not a musical for spectators as it demands to be fully and joyfully experienced.
After a mishap on the train (thanks, DC Metro), I got to The Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C., just in time to see Fela! Thank God because I didn’t want to miss a second. At first I wasn’t aware that the show had started because the band was playing for the crowd, but the house lights were still up.
What I initially thought was a prelude, was actually the show’s opening jam session! So from the first strains, director Bill T. Jones was setting the tone for the show by bringing the audience into a not-so-ordinary night at The Shrine, Fela’s club in Nigeria. No sooner had I gotten to my seat than cast members came ambling down the aisle, ready to have a good time. Among them, the stone-faced Fela, masterfully played by Sahr Ngaujah.
Fela! takes place on what would have been the last performance at The Shrine because he’s planning to leave for America the next day. Fela has traveled the world spreading his music and his message of political change, and it’s clear that he doesn’t intend to come back.
There was no illusion of a fourth wall during the performance as Fela was constantly interacting with the audience. So instead of just watching a musical, the beginning of Fela! felt more like attending the livest concert or party you may have been to in a long time. Sitting back was not an option as Fela commanded everyone to get on their feet to play The Clock, an underground spiritual game that requires players to drop it low.
Note: If you’re lucky enough to attend this show, I suggest that you get really comfortable with the idea of audience participation.
As I said, Sahr was phenomenal in his portrayal of the Nigerian composer and political activist. His demeanor with the crowd, although difficult to pinpoint at first, had a more sarcastic-yet-genuine feel to it. Sure Fela might tease you, but he doesn’t mean any harm by it and he even takes a few shots at himself.
Throughout the show, Fela relives pivotal moments in his life, including his discovery of all the musical influences that went into developing his sound. Fela’s high-life vibe borrows heavily from Cuban rhythms, jazz, big band, African music and a just a touch a funk.
With the exception of three songs, Fela! is narrated by the composer’s actual catalogue of music from "Everything Scatter" and "Originality/Yellow Fever" to "Zombie" and "Kere Kay."
Fela’s music took a more political turn during his time in America where he met a woman named Sandra, played by Paulette Ivory. Fela might have had more romantic plans for Sandra when they met in a Los Angeles club, but she’s the woman who eventually opened his eyes to the political injustices around him.
Paulette’s spin on Sandra was equal parts Black power soul sister, mentor and siren (her entrance was smoldering!) as she encouraged Fela to flip through the biographies of Nina Simone, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Martin Luther King Jr (among many others). After reading stacks and stacks of books on the African-American experience, Fela was ready to head back to Nigeria and empower his own country men to stand up against the government, which killed his mother Funmilayo.
The show’s upbeat beginning is balanced out by the more thoughtful second act, where Fela and his followers at the Kalakuta compound fight the establishment. The group is subject to random raids, arrests and gut wrenching attacks that make it easy to see why Fela would want to leave his beloved homeland.
One word from his mother, however, changes everything!
Melanie Marshall was a revelation, who breathed life into the role of Funmilayo with her beautiful operatic voice. For much of the musical, Funmilayo is seen mostly in silhouette until nearly the end of the show, when she encourages Fela to stand strong and stay in Nigeria.
Fresh off Broadway, if you have chance to see Fela! when it hits your city, don’t miss it!