Everyone is buzzing about Fela!  Since it hit Broadway on November 23, 2009, claiming to be the most original new musical, it has had non-stop hit reviews, living up to its own claim by wowing and inspiring audiences night after night. Produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Smith, the show has been so impressive, leaving the New York Times declaring after the first night that there has never been anything on Broadway like this production. Writer Stuart Brynien in Viva! Lifestyles says that Fela! is “well worth seeing–for the story it tells, the spectacle it offers, and the hard, painful questions it asks.”

Among the vivacious cast—whose experiences range from Film and TV works like A Lesson Before Dying, Law & Order, and Spin City to Broadway Shows like Cats, Hair, and Aida—are lead actors Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo, who alternate as Fela Kuti; Lillias White, who stars as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s feminist activist mother; and Saycon Sengbloh, who plays the Black Panther partisan, Sandra Isadore, who influenced Kuti on his visit to the United States. Bringing the vibrant African culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the main stage through music and dance is Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, who has choreographed over a hundred other productions, including the 2007 short, but profoundly introspective play, A Quarreling Pair, and the more recent Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray. Brynien goes on to boast about Fela!, calling it “a whirlwind of song and dance, and a perpetual motion machine in which all the parts are nearly always moving, always gyrating, largely in synch with the Afro-beat rhythms that give the show its pulse.” 

Fela! draws such excitement not only from the talent of the actors and crew members, but also from the fierce life of the real Fela Ransome-Kuti, which was filled with triumph, pleasure, insight, heart-break, and most of all, music. Born to Nigeria’s middle class, Kuti was supposed to go to medical school and become a doctor like his brothers. Instead, Kuti chose to pursue music at London’s Trinity College of Music. Forming a band, Koola Lobitos, Fela developed a distinct style called Afrobeat, a fusion of African jazz and funk, and West African grooves.

Influenced by the Black Panther Party movement while recording in the United States, the band changed its name to the Africa ’70, and their music became increasingly political, taking up issues of human rights, insisting on an authentic African consciousness liberated from colonial influence, and denouncing corruption, especially that of the oppressive Nigerian regimes. This political music rendered him a people’s hero akin to Bob Marley, but, in turn, made him very unpopular with the Nigerian government. Many times Kuti was arrested, beaten, jailed, and his studio raided and burned. In fact, to prepare for the part, Sahr Ngaujah studied old footage of Kuti focusing on his mannerisms: “Even the way he turns to left and right. Because he had been beaten so many times, there were restrictions on his bone structure.”

Fela2An icon in Africa, Kuti was hardly known in the United States, except among Africans and African music followers. Also, like Bob Marley, Kuti was a beloved spliff’ smoker who appealed to and uplifted the spirits of the lower class. At the same time, however, Kuti’s role as progressive activist has been described as controversial and contradictory; he is described as a social engineer concerned with those less fortunate, while at the same time being rebellious, hedonistic, and more than friendly with the ladies, at one time having 27 wives and claiming that African women ought to be submissive. The fragrance of marijuana and the sultry sound of fusion music as the band jammed into the wee hours of the night often wafted out from Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic, a location that served as his home, a recording studio, a commune, and even a free health clinic. And as if to further infuriate the Nigerian government, Kuti claimed his Kalakuta independent of the Nigerian Republic.

Whatever can be said about Kuti’s personal life, his respect is earned from the fact that he seemed to be willing to die for his beliefs. The play—though at times indulging in myth and legend rather than reality, and in a non-linear fashion highlighting certain moments of his life while leaving out others—offers the chance for his story to be told. And not only is it a story about Fela Kuti, it’s also about Africa, and that’s something we don’t get to see too often on the Broadway stage.

The legacy of Fela Kuti, however wild and fantastic, isn’t just about the stage and lights. In an endeavor called the Fela Project, a host of Fela Kuti-inspired musicians, artists, and writers are coming together in a multimedia project that seeks to commemorate the late great Kuti and showcase the work he inspired. At the core of the project is a traveling exhibition called Black President: the Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. An array of symposiums, discussion sessions, concerts, and film screenings will accompany the exhibition as it travels from venue to venue.

As the theater goers continue to flock to see this mega-hit and artists continue to present other projects on Kuti’s extraordinary life, a cast album from Fela! has also been recorded and is expected to be released in June 2010. Now fans can not only see the show and learn about the legend, but also take a part of it home with them.

For more information on the Fela Project and the play, visit www.felaproject.net and www.felaonbroadway.com.