STG Presents FELA! May 28 – June 2, 2013 at The Paramount Theatre
Saturday: 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Sunday: 1:00pm & 6:30pm
The first thing you take away from the first time you see Fela Kuti is the all-consuming cool. There’s a palpable charisma flowing from him, an intense presence. Never having seen him live, I first saw Fela in one of the infamous documentaries on his life. Lounging on his couch in Nigeria in tiny little speedos and nothing else, he puffed a joint the size of a small tree and held forth like a fallen preacher. Fela’s cool – the hip blend of 70s black power, urban Americana and Nigerian juke joint all-night dance parties – was a potent thing, even through celluloid. At the premiere of the musical FELA! on Tuesday at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, that sense of pervading cool flowed from the stage, converting our ornate Paramount Theatre into a Lagos nightclub beset by spirits for one inspired night.
FELA! premiered on Broadway back in 2010 and won three Tony awards for its riveting portrayal of the life of Nigerian afro-pop superstar Fela Kuti through choreographed dance, music, visual media, and acting. Now the show’s traveling the US, setting up in various cities for a quick run. From May 28 – June 2, Fela!’s in Seattle and you’ve got a chance to catch a Broadway show that won’t insult your intelligence and that doesn’t water down the message of one of Africa’s most controversial figures. Add to this the absolutely stunning choreography, musical production, and stagecraft, and Fela! becomes a truly powerful, almost immersive, experience.
FELA! takes place in 1978 after a brutal government raid on Fela Kuti’s compound outside Lagos has killed his mother and terrorized his many followers. Looking back on the path that brought him to this tragedy, Adesola Osakalumi, in the lead role, channels not only Fela’s righteous rage against the governments of Nigeria, but also channels Fela’s passion for music. In an inspired sequence, Osakalumi breaks down the American and British musical influences that helped Fela create afro-beat music, from Latin rhythms to James Brown funk. The stellar house band –who play throughout the show, even during intermission– breaks down the different musical elements that make up Fela’s afrobeat. Traveling from the UK to America, Fela meets activist Sandra Isadore and is introduced to the American black power movement. Played by Michelle Williams of 90s R&B group Destiny’s Child, Isadore becomes a foil for American audiences to see how the philosophies of black power activists combined with Fela’s existing sense of injustice from his Nigerian upbringing (his mother was a famous activist in her own right). Some people in the audience were pretty pumped about Williams’ turn in the show, but she’s really only a small part of the cast. The real star here is Fela. In fact, so much of the show is given over to intense performances of Fela’s music with choreographed dance, that it almost feels like a recreation of original shows from back in the day.
What’s really inspiring about FELA! is that the producers kept Fela’s messages at the center of the art. Fela’s songs and rantings spoke against police oppression, international corporations, colonialism, racism, and governmental indifference. Every theme in his music is as fresh and current today as it was in the 70s and 80s. In FELA!, the actors bring these messages to the present day, calling out Monsanto, the WTO, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and many other contemporary examples of the ignorance Fela spent his life fighting through music. Osakalumi’s calling out of military and police oppression in the classic song “Zombie” (“Zombie no go stop unless you tell him to stop/Zombie no go think unless you tell him to think”) takes on new dimensions with the full cast performance on stage.
FELA! is a deeply inspiring and powerful translation of the life and message of Fela Kuti to the stage, a story that gains more in this retelling. Fela understood the power of stories. He understood that stories made us larger. And that speaking larger, that singing or performing larger, that imagining larger was the only way to engage real change in our world. That’s a great lesson to take away from his story.