I didn’t know that upon entering the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sydney Harman Hall on a late summer’s eve that I’d instantly be transported to The Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria some thirty odd years ago. Though the building itself is worth marveling over, I instantly forgot of its modern lines, sophisticated air. I was mesmerized by color, music, dance, life! I felt the very essence of my existence instantly enriched and, for the moment, I was free with Fela!
The executive producers (among who are the famed Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith) were no fools. They knew of the greatness in which they would have a hand. The general consensus may not have expected the likes of Fela! from hip-hop royalty nor (as heard among the whispers of some of the attendees) for it to have been presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. But that’s what they get for being so presumptuous. The combination of the behind the scenes glory, the stage presence magic and the welcomed venue produced a sublime masterpiece.
This Tony Award-winning production highlights the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti – an infamous and adored Nigerian musician and activist who rivaled against the Nigerian government and fed his people with his music coined Afrobeats and his desire for justice in his country. Birthed from politically active, middle classed parents, Fela studied jazz in England and traveled the world spreading his music and educating himself in politics and humanity. His story, is one that had to have been told . . . and alas it has! Most might say that they enjoyed seeing a play or watching a show. And that’s all fine and good. Yet, without a shadow of doubt I can say that being a part of Fela! was the best time I have ever had in a theatre. You see, Fela! isn’t something to see or watch. Not even a spectacle to witness. Fela! envelopes you and you surrender willingly.
In The Shrine, the music begins and you see performers dancing carelessly as if we weren’t there—reveling in the power of the drum. The fashions of the late 70’s western world met native dress and such was the dance. Had it not been for the steep incline of the stairs and intimacy of the seats in row, one might not have been able to compose themselves and remain seated in the audience: the music, the dancers, drew you to them. Then there was Fela! (And if I didn’t have my mind about me, I would bet my arms that Sahr Ngaujah was, in fact, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti himself). If for some odd reason you thought you were still in DC during the first musical number, Fela came to the stage and reminded you that you were, in fact, in The Shrine. The interactivity of the production with the audience was immensely pleasurable and perfectly composed in its scripted unscriptedness. Your memories and thoughts were provided for you by the visuals projected in designated areas of the stage: Additional scenery for the story being told, the story that you were now a part of. The marriage of the music that created his Afrobeats – from jazz to Cuban sounds to the African (not Yoruba, not AfroCuban, but Fela’s) drum is intoxicating and I would implore anyone to research and purchase his music. Fela was witty, real, honest, true. Uncensored in production, as I expect he was in life.
Yet even in the greatness of being in The Shrine, there were moments were we were propelled into Fela’s subconscious mind and intimate thoughts. This production, if one can – at this point – call it that, transcends realms. It’s limitless. He was tortured, haunted by his mother, torn between his love for his country and fleeing because his country abused him so. And there were portions of the truth of his life and those connected to him that tore your heart from your chest for them. The ache, so tangible, that anger sprung forth against those who are probably now gone.
Fela! is a story previously unsung, but in recent years resounds so profoundly in the lives of its witnesses that we can do nothing but share of our experience and urge those who have not gone to go. You must go. It will be the experience of a lifetime. I cannot sing enough praises about this production. Not only is it worth every penny, but the memories of having experienced it connect you to a page of history where you had the chance to meet one of the wildest, most talented and true men who have walked this planet.
Sydney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW