Walk into the Eugene O’Neill Theater in New York City, and you’ll see it’s decked out in African masks, revolutionary murals, disco balls, a map of Africa, and a larger-than-life photo of Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti. Funmilayo was the mother of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the legendary musician, political activist, and dissident who brought Afrobeat rhythms to the world.
“Fela!” the musical, isn’t like any other Broadway production. Yes, there’s the singing and the dancing and the pretty girls. But the hero in this show is a pink-pantsuit-wearing, womanizing, saxophone-playing, joint-smoking, laugh-out-loud funny guy from Nigeria. And you’re inside his Lagos nightclub, the Shrine.
“Fela!” makes its Broadway debut this week, and opening night will bring the show’s big-name investors Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith into the Shrine. After garnering rave reviews during its off-Broadway run, the Broadway production has filled seats in preview performances.
Fela, played by both Sierra Leone native Sahr Ngaujah and Zimbabwean actor Kevin Mambo, is such a demanding role that the actors switch out each night. The ensemble cast of singers and dancers is directed by Bill T. Jones, one of the most innovative choreographers in the U.S. While the show is dominated by Fela’s character, two strong women in Fela’s life also rise to the top. Lillias White plays Fela’s mother, a women’s rights activist who made strides in Africa. And Saycon Sengbloh takes on the role of Fela’s love interest Sandra Isidore, a black American woman who taught him about African-American political ideologies and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
The show is comprised of vignettes, melded together by the rich, pulsating sounds of the djembe drum, saxophone, and a live Afrobeat band on stage. Fela spends quite a bit of time addressing the audience in a series of monologues that range from light-hearted and funny to intense political criticisms. The musical spans a few decades of Fela’s life. His character personally explains to the audience how he decided to learn jazz instead of medicine at University in London, and how he had run-ins with the Nigerian police in Lagos.
Throughout, Fela maintains a strong connection to his mother, whose death is a climactic moment that results in perhaps the most heartbreaking, yet awe-inspiring and electrifying Yoruba song and dance. Dressed all in white and wearing streaks of white paint on his face, Fela is surrounded by men in large headdresses and elaborate white costumes. They dance to the unrelenting beat of the drum as Fela mourns his mother’s passing after a military raid on his compound.
“Fela!” the musical covers a lot of ground. It uses songs to illustrate important themes like Fela’s introduction to the African-American black power movement, corrupt Nigerian government practices, foreign oil exploitation in Africa, and, in one very significant scene, torture.
While the show sometimes feels like a collection of song after song, the unique presentation – its frequent monologues, multimedia and video elements projected on the walls, the unsurpassable energy of the cast, and the blending of traditional Yoruba culture with modern-day political thought – makes “Fela!” an intense and quite spectacular production.