Prepare to emerge yourself in Fela Kuti’s world. You are no longer the quiet theater-goer, watching from a distance, simply taking in a show at the Ordway Center on Tuesday night. You are part of Fela’s shrine – and as such, part of the madness.
It can be a strange place to be, no doubt. After all, your fearless leader has just returned to the stage after one of the most heartbreaking and vicious attacks of his life. It’s no surprise that he announces, this is his last show.
But before reliving the terrible assault, Fela, played brilliantly by Sahr Ngaujah, works to bring a bit of hope through music back to the shrine. He ensures us, his message remains the same and while he is eager to continue the fight, he’s struggling to stay in Nigeria when other opportunities arise.
It’s during this internal battle that we pick up his story.
If you’ve never experienced AfroBeat firsthand, you’re in for a treat. The heavy bass line, thumping drums and incredible horn section that Fela created is nothing short of incredible. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to move – and move they did.
The dancing in this production is intense, intricate and all sorts of physically exhausting. Fela’s Queens are rarely sitting or standing still. And yes, as members of his shrine, you, too, will be asked to get up and dance. (If you’ve ever been curious to see 50-something Scandinavians “booty shake,” you’ll have your chance.)
But even though his music evokes uplifting and upbeat tempos, there’s a message of pain, suffering and anger. Fela describes a landscape of turmoil, injustice and at times, hopelessness. It’s through this music that he rallied his troops and created the loyal followers of the shrine.
Of course, being a messenger of change doesn’t come without its hardships. Fela was beat hundreds of times for his outspoken songs and words of challenge. And in 1977, troops raided Fela’s shrine, tortured and beat his followers and threw his mother from a second-story window. Reliving this experience turns the audience deathly still and quiet – only to be occasionally disrupted by the gasps of horror or sighs of anger.
It would’ve been easy for anyone to give up at that point. Throw in the towel and admit defeat. But Fela couldn’t just walk away. It took some deep soul-searching and a somewhat chaotic and confusing journey to reconnect with his mother, but the Fela that emerged came out stronger than before. His mother’s words – played by the incredible powerhouse Melanie Marshall – sent a stirring message of courage that simply couldn’t be ignored.
There’s no question that Fela! is an inspiring, hard-hitting journey and while I may not have understood it all, there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from even being invited into a glimpse of his life. It’s a show that may leave you with more questions than answers, more anger than happy endings but perhaps that’s exactly the point.
Fela! runs through June 17 at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts. For tickets or more information, click here.