Fela at the Ordway

June 12, 2012
By

Sahr Ngaujah and the ensemble in Fela. Photo by Raymond Hagans

You have just until June 17 to see “Fela” at the Ordway before it heads back to Broadway for a run starting in July. Forget what it was you were going to do this week, quit reading this and get your tickets! You don’t want to miss this one. It’s infused with infectious music, phenomenal dancing and impressive spectacle. But better yet, this is a show about something – and it’s true.

Sahr Ngaujah in the title role is Fela, a Nigerian and music superstar for decades, who used his music and charisma to protest the cruel military regime governing his country at the time. Even though he could have left and lived the hedonistic life of an international rock star, he stayed in Nigeria, inspired by his mother’s activist life, and fueled by the memory of her death at the hands of Nigerian soldiers. He paid for this decision with many arrests, torture that nearly killed him and the loss of his beloved Kalakuta Republic commune.

In the context of his last concert at The Shrine, the commune’s nightclub, we serve as the audience as Fela narrates his own story, supported by an ensemble of amazing dancers (who can do more with the bit of costume on their behinds than you imagined was possible). This is wrapped in beautifully paired – and varied – projections, which both fill in the blanks and transport us from the unit set into the events of his life, and into the context of world events, as well.

This device also guides us through the influences and development of his music, which is heavily influenced by Nigerian music (“The drums first,” he says) but joyfully borrows from jazz, rock, R&B and anything that strikes him. Lyrically, he sings prose poems that make up their own rules and find their structure in the mantra of a single musical phrase and the powerful rhythms, driven by several percussionists, who are superstars in their own right.

Ngaujah even had all of us on our feet – moving, singing, clapping. You won’t mind, even if that sort of thing makes you uncomfortable. He makes everybody participate and it seems like a perfectly natural thing to do.

But this is not really about having a party, singing, dancing and sharing an oversized joint. It is about his response to political and industrial corruption and his compassion for people who endure suffering. In keeping with traditional beliefs, he consults with his mother, Funmilayo, (Melanie Marshall) to guide him in his decisions, as deceased relatives are supposed to do. We, too, are transported to this spiritual world in her presence, particularly in the climactic number, “Rain.” Marshall, in a voice so clear and true, one could believe she was indeed an angel, was absolute perfection on this high point of the evening.

I don’t usually give points just for energy. (Broadway musicals generally try to top each other as calorie-burning affairs for their actor/dancers.) But this one has a different kind of energy that feels organic to the piece – essential, really, and a natural part of the music, the story and the emotions that drive it all. He proclaims as a young man, “I’m going to change the world.” In the final number, when he sings “They wan bury and forget, but we won’t let them,” it’s possible to think that maybe he still can.

Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, with a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, and music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

 

 

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