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Review: Fela! at the Curran Theatre (San Francisco)

Jeanne Powell reviews Fela!, the true story of the legendary Nigerian musician.



Fela! is the true story of the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, whose soulful Afrobeat rhythms ignited a generation all over the world. His life story of courage, passion and controversy is told through Kuti’s captivating music along with the visionary direction and choreography of  Bill T. Jones.  This is so much more than a musical and it keeps the audience rocking for 2-1/2 hours.

Fela Kuti (1938-1997) has been described by Gene Santoro in the Nation as a “mix of shaman, politician, ombudsman, activist and musical genius.”  Raised in Nigeria, musically educated in England (where he discovered American jazz and blues) and politically awakened in the United States  (where he was exposed to the civil rights movement), Fela became to the Nigerian people what reggae genius Bob Marley was to the citizens of Jamaica.

Many of Kuti’s concerts were held in his nightclub (The Shrine) in the city of Lagos, Nigeria, and this setting is reproduced onstage.  Sahr Ngaujah is mesmerizing as Kuti, showcasing talents which made Kuti famous – accomplished musician, singer, dancer and polemicist. At certain performances, the part of Fela Kuti is played by Adesola Osakalumi.

Because of Kuti’s high visibility and strong opposition to the Nigerian government, he was beaten, arrested and jailed numerous times.  Fela’s powerful songs ridiculed and condemned governmental corruption, police brutality and multinational exploitation of his country.

To keep the audience informed at the Curran, contemporary newspaper headlines and Fela’s song lyrics are superimposed on small screens bordering the stage.  Those who don’t know the story, or don’t care about the origins of this amazing music, may just rock along with the dancers and musicians.  You don’t need to know the story to dance in rhythm with Afrobeat.

Kuti’s inspiration was his beloved Yoruba mother, Funmilayo, movingly portrayed by Melanie Marshall. Fela never recovered from her death at the hands of government troops, who raided his Lagos compound (nightclub and living quarters) and burned it to the ground in 1977.  Deep in grief at one point, he wishes to speak to Funmilayo and calls upon the god Shango, the orisha of fire, for permission to visit the spiritual afterworld.  The staging for this sequence is stunning, and this high level of stagecraft is maintained throughout the play, thanks to designer Marina Draghici, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, sound director Robert Kaplowitz, projection designer Peter Nigrini and Cookie Jordan (wigs and make-up designer).

Bill T. Jones conceived, directed and choreographed this play.  Jones received a Tony award in 2009 for his choreography in Fela!  Jones is also the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant.

The talented Paulette Ivory plays Sandra, Fela’s American love.  Wanjiru Kamuyu and Jill Marie Vallery are dance captains for this vibrant production.  Kamuyu is founder of the dance company, WKcollective.  Vallery trained at the Alvin Ailey School and became a national teaching artist for Ailey Arts.  Jermaine Rowe is the assistant dance captain.  Rowe has worked with Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Alvin Ailey School and the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica.
The company of Fela! is appearing with the permission of Actors’ Equity Association and UK Equity.

Fela! runs through December 11th at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco.  For further information, visit http://shnsf.com.  Check the Fela! Web site for additional venues around the world.

About Jeanne Powell

Jeanne Powell is a poet and short story writer, who teaches in a summer program for teens. Her most recent books are "My Own Silence" and "Word Dancing," available online and through booksellers. She also hosts spoken word events in San Francisco, and covers cultural happenings for online media.