Fela: Third Time’s A Charm

David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

August 2nd was the fifteenth anniversary of the passing of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. My dad told me about seeing him perform once at the African Street Festival (now known as the International African Arts Festival) in 1996, which would come to be his last performance in the U.S. before he died in 1997. Since checking out the Broadway play the first two times I have had the pleasure of seeing Fela’s sons live, Femi and Seun, continuing in his footsteps in their own ways. The man who was respected by musicians of his generation such as James Brown, Roy Ayers and Lester Bowie has rightfully endured time and is unexpectedly resurfacing in the global stratosphere again. With the family’s approval as well as The Roots’ Questlove and Jay-Z backing it as producers, the play has attracted famous attendees like Laurence Fishburne, Christiane Amanpour and first lady Michelle Obama. What was once feared to be a disastrous run has now become an internationally acclaimed play, traveling that far too and returning to Broadway for the past month at the Al Hirschfeld Theater.

Going to the new theater felt a bit odd at first since I had gotten used to walking by the play at the Eugiene O’Neal one. Personally it seemed a bit smaller, but all in all the set was decorated the same way so after a moment it begins to feel the same. At this point I’ve probably sat in every part of a theater: rear, upper, and this time the front section. The only thing I will say about that is the balcony feels a bit weird since the play demands your presence and interaction as part of the experience. You might make a fuss at first as with anything new you try out, but once you are drawn in it is like being in a club. Bustling with liveliness and hypnotic music, you won’t want the vibe to end once it begins.

Several additions from the UK run made for a different acting dynamic with the cast. Having seen both Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo play Fela, Adesola Osakalumi who now alternates with Sahr as Kevin left brings a balance between the two. Sahr would often focus on the delivery of Fela’s social commentary and make him appear to be more of a leader, whereas Kevin played off his more humorous aspects and witty remarks. Adesola strikes the middle ground between the previous leads, perhaps coming closer to realizing the complexity of Fela as a person. Interestingly enough, Adesola’s father along with his uncles owned Makossa Records, the first label that brought Fela’s music to the US. He even met the famed musician before he passed, tying in a sense of fate to his inclusion into the cast.

Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, had a more parental tone with Melanie Marshall playing her, coming off as more compassionate.  Lillias White commanded the role the first time around as a powerful influence in Fela’s life, and was nominated for a Tony as Lillias would steal the show when she was on stage. The limited time that Patti Labelle filled in her shoes offered soulful takes on the numbers and a bit of a diva edge to the character. His mother in this run seemed to be more of a maternal figure, letting us see where gets his passion and devotion to his causes from. Perhaps the only character that seemed to not stand out as much this time was Sandra Isadore. I don’t know if its Paulette Ivory’s interpretation or changes in the play, but  Saycon Sengbloh as Sandra resonated with me a lot more. There also seemed to be fewer wives in the new one, but I could be wrong. I did see the play each time a year apart from one another though so that could also account for some of the differences stated.

Each time I see the play it seems to move along a bit quicker. The total running time has been cut down from when I first went during the press run before it officially opened. Especially the second act seems to have had some of the numbers and the dance routines shortened, probably to pace the story along faster. Small things such as where the performers would watch the audience practice their “clocks” and a bit of dialogue with the crowd has also been scaled back. Some of the changes may impact how a person new to his legacy may grasp it upon first viewing, but the allure of the performance will most likely leave anyone wanting to find out more afterward. Chances are though you have already experienced this renaissance on Broadway. And by the look of things it will be staying around for a while so more people will learn about the man considered by some to be the Bob Marley of Africa. If you haven’t gone yet, well, you’re probably still kicking yourself so I’ll leave it there.

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