On a visit to New York in June of 2010, I first encountered the show Fela! - It was one of the Tony nominees for best musical of the season, and it proved to be an amazing theatrical experience with the interior of the Eugene O'Neill theatre transformed into a replica of Fela Kuti's Nigerian club, The Shrine. Now, Toronto audience will have a chance to enter The Shrine when Fela! plays a limited engagement at the Canon Theatre through November 6.
The Shrine, where Fela Kuti presented his Afro-beat music along with consciousness-raising lectures, was a popular hangout and a target of scorn and harassment by the Nigerian army. In his music and words, Kuti criticized the corrupt Nigerian generals and the large multi-national and oil companies that kept them in power.
Repeating his Tony-nominated performance as Fela is Sahr Ngaujah who has been with the show since its inception. He recalls that the show started "with Stephen Hendel having an idea of making a piece about Fela dealing with Fela's music. He got connected wit Bill T Jones and Jim Lewis but from the first time they got on the floor I was there - and we began experimenting."
Fela! had a limited off-Broadway engagement in September of 2008. It won the Lucille Lortel award for Outstanding musical of the season, and a year later opened on Broadway to a chorus of approval by the New York critics...the show did not receive one negative review -or even a mixed notice. They were all favorable including a large number of outright raves. With that enthusiastic launch Fela! settled in for a successful season-long Broadway run.
For Ngaujah, the show was both career-advancing as well as educational. "I knew a little bit about Fela," he recalls. "I was familiar with his music from a very young age. I liked his music, I knew some of the more provocative things like that he smoked grass and that he married 27 wives. I knew about his politics and his social ideas - those things I could hear inside of the music - but I didn't really know his story. He was political and he had a lot to say, and a lot of what he was talking about was government corruption and mismanagement of funds and that hit the pockets of people in high places so they didn't like him for that reason. To the point where of the 3 regimes that Fela lived through, one of the first orders of business when a president would come into office in Nigeria was: Kill Fela."
The controversial nature of the show led to some interesting encounters with audience members. Says Ngaujah "There are people who didn't like Fela when he was alive and people who still don't like him today because of what he was outspoken about and how that relates to their own lives. There are also people who didn't like his lifestyle. They didn't like that he was this rock star with 27 wives, smoking grass, which is illegal, so there are a lot of reasons for people to find a problem with Fela but no one has particularly told me what problem they had with Fela."
Many others who saw the show loved it. Sahr remembers one particular fan he met in New York while Fela! was playing on Broadway. "One Day we started the show and there was this woman and whenever Fela would say something she would respond with so much zest and zeal. This short white woman wearing a big white T-shirt and she was out of her seat almost every time Fela would ask for some sort of response and she had so much fervor and after the show we walked out the stage door and people are there to get autographs and look who's there... It's this same little white woman in the big white shirt. She was saying 'Oh I just love Fela Kuti...I never heard of him before and I'm gonna buy everything he ever made.' She just went on and on like this and she said 'I'm from Mobile, Alabama and we've got this oil washing up onto our coast' - this was while the oil was still gushing in the gulf - and she says 'we've got this oil washing up on beaches and it's such a disaster and I was thinking about it watching this show and I didn't realize these people in Nigeria have been dealing with this for 50 years. I didn't think about who else in the world could be going through this.' That was a very interesting encounter because her world and Fela's world are so far from each other yet they are so connected."