Had Fela Anikulapo Kuti simply been content to be something of a very good and happily narcissistic “bad boy” – Nigeria’s rock star-like creator of Afrobeat, whose powerhouse songs, sax playing and singing made him a globally known musical firebrand, whose raw sexuality made him a magnet for women, whose use of drugs made him a man of his moment, and whose club in Lagos, the Afrika Shrine, was known to be a sort of above-ground playground with a dangerous underground vibe – he might have been left alone.
Even his stinging little comments about the Nigerian military that ruled his country during the oil-rich yet mostly poverty-ridden 1970s might have been overlooked.
But Fela (“he who shines with greatness”) had politics in his blood and the power to charge up the masses. And that made him a serious threat to the powers that be.
Fela’s journey – from musical innovator to political target – is what “Fela!,” the ground-breaking Broadway musical, is all about. Brilliantly camouflaged as a phenomenal dance party set to the irresistible percussion and brass wail of a super-charged Afrobeat band, it turns out to be a dark, hallucinatory voyage into the power (and consequences) of artists who speak truth to power. And the production now making a three-week touring stop at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre is, if anything, sharper, clearer and more forceful in its storytelling than the Broadway original.
Conceived by director-choreographer Bill T. Jones, writer Jim Lewis and producer Stephen Hendel, and driven by nearly two dozen of Fela’s blistering, infectiously propulsive songs, the show imagines the musician’s final performance at his Afrika Shrine, after he has been beaten, many in his commune have been hauled off to prison and tortured, and his beloved mother has died after brutal treatment by the forces that came to torch his home. Fela – played by Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the role and gives one of those marathon, tour-de-force performances that indelibly emblazons itself on your brain and makes the actor forever inseparable from his character – takes us back to his childhood and seductively carries us along to the point of no return. A blazing personality in his own right, with the body and grace of an Ailey dancer, a clarion voice and a magical command of the stage (and the audience), Ngaujah is a wonder.
Fela’s politics came from his activist mother, Funmilayo (Melanie Marshall, who thrills with “Rain,” a mix of Yoruba chant and operatic sweep by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean), and from Sandra (the sexy, Patti LaBelle-like Paulette Ivory), his radicalizing African-American muse in the Black Panther era of late 1960s California. But it crystallized with the realization that after ridding itself of its British colonial rulers, Nigeria simply replaced its white oppressors with black ones.
So when Fela had the audacity to dream of being president, and when the women in the Lagos marketplace began to echo his hit song, “Zombies,” with its not-so-hidden message about the state of their nation, it was only a matter of time ’til all hell broke loose. And it did.
Ngaujah (whose alternate, Adesola Osakalumi, plays some performances) has extraordinary support from an ensemble of astonishing female dancers with larger-than-life personalities. They are in perpetual motion from start to finish in the show, with theatricalized African dance moves that are nothing less than hypnotic. And there are superb turns by Ismael Kouyate and Gelan Lambert as well. As for the onstage band, they would be worth the price of admission all by themselves.
And then there is the show’s eye-popping design – an explosion of African geometrics, a hint of the electric mashup of Lagos, and the glory of African textiles, all realized by set and costume designer Marina Draghici, and lit by Robert Wierzel.
Watching “Fela!” I kept thinking of the current president of Nigeria. His name is Goodluck Jonathan. You can only imagine what kind of song Fela might write about HIM.
Note: During curtain calls for Wednesday night’s opening performance, Ngaujah welcomed the real Sandra Isadore to stage.