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May 16, 2012

'Fela!' shakes the roof at Morgan State University

“I’m going to change Africa,” Fela Kuti says in the ambitious, highly-charged musical about his life and work. “I’m going to change the world.”

It’s not an idle boast.

“Fela!” the multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway show that has settled into Morgan State University’s Murphy Center through the weekend, provides a visceral encounter with the spirit of the iconic Nigerian musician, activist, polygamist and hedonist.

More than just the spirit, actually. Given the startling performance by Sahr Ngaujah in the title role, it’s easy to forget that this is a theatrical vehicle at all.

Starting in the late 1960s, Fela fused from various influences a hypnotic genre that came to be called “Afrobeat.” It soon exerted a global reach, which would have been enough to earn Fela lasting fame. But after exposure to ...

the Black Power movement in the States, he became politically energized and outspoken against oppression at home.

Fela’s music grew increasingly provocative, full of undisguised challenges to the Nigerian dictatorship. The authorities, of course, were not amused.

With a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones (he also directed and devised the kinetic, richly evocative choreography), the musical manages to steer a viable course between entertainment and polemics.

There’s a clever device to give the show a sense of structure. The setting is Fela’s Shrine, the nightclub/compound he established in Lagos, and the set-up is that it’s his last concert there, circa 1977.

Things get funny, vulgar, earthy and, in one vivid scene, severely scatological along the way.

It’s all held together loosely, but engagingly, for more than two and a half hours by Fela’s songs, interspersed with information about his life.

Much of those details emerge simply as banter with the audience. And the way Ngaujah banters, it feels like it comes directly from the source.

The actor, who also starred in the original Broadway and London productions of "Fela!" does not settle for impersonation. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s more like reincarnation. The main difference is that Ngaujah has the warmer, more technically polished voice. But the persona — judging by the vintage video I’ve seen of the real thing — is pure Fela. Everything Ngaujah says and does rings true, and brings the audience more tightly into his world.

There is little left of a fourth wall here. The audience is encouraged, even expected to be part of the song-and-dance action at times. That’s not an easy thing to pull off in the theater. Folks more accustomed to ordinary decorum and distance may have trouble with all of this, but it’s worth letting go.

The music has an organic force, with reiterated, brilliantly syncopated rhythms that can slip under the skin and regenerate cells you thought were long dormant. And when you sense everyone around you moving and tingling, it really is a cool sensation.

Then, just as everyone settles into a feel-no-pain groove, “Fela!” generates the zingers that will sting long after the final curtain — pithy lyrics, in Pidgin English, skewering colonialism, ruthless corporations, oppressive regimes, and “zombie” soldiers who stomp their way through people and principles.

There is very heady, disturbing stuff here, often accompanied by painful imagery of violence and suffering in Nigeria, projected on the vibrant, two-tiered set (designed by Marina Draghici, who also did the costumes).

When the story of the attack on the Shrine by 1,000 soldiers is told, no funky beat can obscure the horror. Suddenly, we are thrust into the heart and soul of the matter.

What hurts is not just the dreadful retelling of this raid, which caused the death of Fela’s mother, but the heavy reminder of how little has changed since the 1970s in parts of Africa and elsewhere.

As the details are recounted, symbolic coffins are piled on the stage, bearing inscriptions of more recent names from more recent controversies, including Trayvon Martin.

(The show misses an opportunity later to address another issue that has hardly lost its relevance. Fela died of AIDS, a disease still ravaging Africa. Seems like a subtle way could be found to make that point.)

Ultimately, though, there’s a cumulative uplift. Fela celebrated life as much as he challenged the forces determined to curtail freedom and pleasure, and that affirmation permeates the air.

It is underlined most emphatically here through the character of his mother, a free-thinker named Funmilayo, portrayed with an affecting grace and extraordinary vocal radiance by Melanie Marshall. She’s so magnetic that you can’t help but wish she got more stage time.

The rest of the cast in this international touring production shines, especially Paulette Ivory as Sandra, the American woman who helped spark Fela’s political thinking. But this is, above all, a showcase for the imposing talents of Ngaujah, who, backed by a tireless band of top-notch musicians, conjures up the full force of Fela.

Performances continue through Sunday.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:36 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens


This show was incredible. I loved that the setting of his story was at the Shrine, where he told his powerful story, from the musical, political, religious, and most importantly, maternal influences in his life. The lead actor's voice and the voice of the mother are soul-stirring. This is a must see!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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