Staging Fela!

Published at the Toronto Standard

As he prepares for the Toronto debut of Fela! tomorrow, we talk to Sahr Ngaujah, the actor who’s been rousing audiences as the Afrobeat revolutionary since the show’s off-Broadway start.

Though Fela Kuti passed away in 1997, it’s an exciting time to be a fan. The Nigerian musician, who merged West African musicality with jazz, funk and psychedelia in the late ’60s, calling it Afrobeat, is experiencing a posthumous revival. Sons Femi and Seun are touring prodigies in their own right; a Steve McQueen-helmed biopic, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in lead, is currently in production; and then there’s the musical, Fela!, opening in Toronto Tuesday night.

Between 1962 and 1992, Fela released over 40 albums. Along with his musical prowess, Fela became a political icon through his agglomerative idea of black power and persistence in pissing off the Nigerian government by exposing human rights abuses and military malpractice. A traditionalist, delving deeper into the Yoruba religion throughout his life, Fela was also a staunch polygamist.

Sahr Ngaujah is the American-born performance artist who’s been rousing audiences as the Afrobeat demagogue since the show’s start, off-Broadway, in 2008—before Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith signed on as co-producers, before the 11 Tony nominations, and before taking London earlier this year. Three years on, it’s a role still close to his heart that challenges and thrills every night.

“As an artist, process and development is very important to me,” he explains, detailing Fela!’s lengthy gestation period. “There was a very intense distillation of everything that came up in our research, experimentation on the floor, and examination of music and text.” Even now, Ngaujah shares, he continues to revise and reanimate Fela.

Along with the brilliance of Fela’s sonics and Bill T. Jones’ choreographic finesse, he wonders if the show’s ecumenical praise reflects global unease. “For me, it’s like, why does Fela’s music work?” says Ngaujah. “Why does it get people? Why was his music such a threat?” Every romanticized revolutionary, from Che Guevara to Steve Jobs, has a definitive, lasting message, and “Music is the weapon of the future,” was Fela’s. “We’re talking in military terms, but it can also be looked at from a different perspective,” explains Ngaujah. “He found a way to tap into something that resonated with a lot of people and then interlaced his ideas within.”

Government corruption, economic mismanagement, and the unequal distribution of wealth are some of Fela’s lasting criminations. “And well,” trails Ngaujah, his voice lilting to convey the obviousness of the point he’s about to make, “if we turn on the news right now we see people responding to their situation and this is what Fela was talking about then.”

Raucous, lubricious and wonderfully historic, the show is more euphoric than somber and it’s also brilliantly communal. It was a challenge to build ways to engage and form contacts with the audience into the show’s structure, says Ngaujah. “But going to work every day and meeting one thousand to three thousand people who find a sort of collective experience under a groove makes me think we’ve done something wonderful.”