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A legend comes to life in Fela!

Production offers inspiration through music, storytelling


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You probably didn't grow up playing Fela Anikulapo Ransome-Kuti at parties, and he probably wasn't the soundtrack to your first kiss. After all, the Nigerian rock star, who would have been 75 this year, recorded his last original track 20 years ago. Even at the height of his popularity, he refused to perform abroad, and with songs that routinely lasted 10 minutes or longer, he wasn't exactly radio-friendly.

Yet Fela!, the musical, has received critical acclaim, with two successful Broadway runs, three Tony Awards and several international and national tours. How did the story of a fame-shunning musician, hardly known during his prime in the United States — outside of rarefied African-American art and experimental music circles — become a Broadway phenomenon? The answer seems to be a blessed combination of his genius, artistry, star power, life story and funk. Deep funk.

"Americans are funny animals; if we haven't heard of it, we shy away from it until someone says it's OK," says Gelan Lambert, one of the show's principal performers, whose unique tap dancing style drew rave reviews from the New York Times. He says he'd heard of Fela in passing, but like many Americans, hadn't explored the music until the Broadway show.

Fortunately, Fela! comes with plenty of big-name clout: acclaimed choreographer Bill T. Jones bestowed tremendous creativity and credibility as director, and Jay Z and Will Smith got on board as producers after the initial off-Broadway opening. Now, Destiny Child's Michelle Williams has been added to the show, which stops at Charlotte's Belk Theater on Feb. 25 and 26. The combination seems made to attract theater lovers and curiosity seekers — but this isn't what has kept media outlets buzzing near-constantly since 2009.

Fela! is not Kuti's literal story; rather, it's a slice of the Afrobeat pioneer's life as seen through an Americanized lens. Still, as hundreds of thousands in ticket sales can attest, it resonates. Set on the night of his final performance at Kuti's Afrika Shrine, a nightclub and commune that he declared part of the Kalakata Republic — and therefore outside of the authority of the Nigerian government — the production uses flashbacks and dream elements to illustrate the major turning points in his life.

The son of well-off, politically active educators, Kuti studied music in 1960s London before returning to Nigeria and playing a hybrid of African highlife and jazz music. A charismatic performer, his magnetism for the opposite sex was apparent years before his mass marriage to dozens of women. His lyrics centered around romantic themes, until a 1969 trip to Los Angeles exposed him to the concepts of Black Power and Black Pride.

An early, cheeky scene in Fela! mirrors his obsessions, with Kuti plunging into nationalistic texts while sexy dancers wind through stacks of books. Having grown up witnessing the drastic inequalities of life between the haves and have-nots in Africa, Kuti believed he'd found the key to fighting the twin beasts of corruption and Eurocentrism that were oppressing his people, and he poured his revolutionary ideas into what he would later dub Afrobeat music.

Fela! manages to attract both Broadway fans and lovers of the Afrobeat sound, a horn-shocked mix of highlife, jazz, Juju music and funk. A multi-layered groove that could almost be called hypnotic except for its irresistible call to make your body move and live musicianship are trademarks of the sound. Fela!'s generous use of Kuti's songs, as well as additional original music by the renowned Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, saturate the performances with soul.

It took some doing, however. Aaron Johnson, the show's musical supervisor and director of Antibalas, had the often frustrating task of rearranging and condensing 15-minute songs into four-minute set pieces. "I realized it's not a live concert, but I had to preserve the spirit of the songs," Johnson says. "The horn section on 'Zombie' is not negotiable; without it, it's not the same song."

Johnson held fast to the ideal, not just to introduce Fela's music to theater audiences, but to ensure the music remained authentic. "When Fela's sons or daughter or old members of [Fela's band] Afrika 70 come to the show, I wanted to be sure the music would be something they recognized."

It is important to note that not all of Kuti's music is positive; his strident sexism and misogyny come through on songs like "Condom Scallywag and Scatter," which predated his eventual death to AIDS-related complications in 1997. But the lion's share of his legacy, according to Lambert, is "his genius in creating music we can groove to and lyrics we can listen to and say, 'Wow, this is still going on to this day.' It's part of the human experience to constantly struggle toward equality."

Upon his return from the States, Kuti formed Afrika 70 and began making fiery songs that were scathingly critical of Nigeria's political and social caste system. He sang in pidgin English, a patois widely spoken by the lower classes, and became a cultural icon on par with Bob Marley for speaking truth to power. This put him under constant attack from police and military forces. He was jailed and beaten repeatedly, his compound invaded and the Shrine nightclub he had declared an independent state burned to the ground. Soldiers even threw his aging mother, Funmilayo, his political and spiritual guide, from a second-story window, causing injuries that led to her death.

Despite depicting such grim circumstances, Fela! manages to express an infectious level of joy and exuberance. During its first Broadway run in 2009, a speaker at Harlem's historical Abyssinian Baptist Church exhorted the congregation to go see the play. He laughingly warned the women to bring duct tape to tie their husbands down, recalls Stephanie Davis El, "because there's a whole lot of rump-shaking going on."

El, a Charlotte mental health therapist, is a regular patron of the arts and consistently takes in Broadway shows. Although she's seen Fela! three times already, she plans to go again on Feb. 25. "I'm amazed by the story," El says, adding that she finds the production's music, costumes and dancing impressive.

Maija Garcia, the architect behind much of the rump-shaking, was part of the original creative team of Fela!, working alongside Bill T. Jones since 2006. The fiercely intellectual Jones had a particular vision for Fela! and sought out contemporary dancers trained in ballet who could also act and sing.

Jones had a hard time filling that request; there were people doing some dazzling things, but he was on a hunt for the whole package. Garcia had joined Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance company two years prior, and was handpicked to assist in auditions, then promoted to associate choreographer.

Though proud that her choreography work helped Jones win a Tony Award, she calls the experience an exercise in humility. "I would essentially create movement on the spot, and [Jones] would critique it and ask me to make a variation — something unexpected, to go against my instinct, or what felt good in the body, in order to create more tension. It was imperative that we embody the resistance of Fela's social cause. We needed to make complex ... movement patterns that would match Fela's musical genius, and echo his relentless will."

To do so, Garcia integrated dance styles from West Africa, Guinea, Senegal, Afro-Cuban Yoruba folklore and more, within a framework of highly technical, post-modern dance. The diverse cast, which hails from Grenada to Paris, offered a deep well to draw from, challenging Garcia to unify all of those influences. In the end, "the result is very authentic," Garcia says.

As a major touring production, Fela! costs between $60,000 and $70,000 per performance to produce, so bringing it to Charlotte was a significant commitment for the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. But Blumenthal doesn't seem to count it as a risk. As of publication, the Belk Theater was more than 75 percent capacity for opening night, with sales even across the board for the highest to lowest priced tickets. "I think it'll be a hit," Blumenthal president Tom Gabbard says.

Douglas Young, VP of programming, agrees. "The show had a limited tour its first year, because I think a lot of producers, like us, hadn't quite figured out what to do with it. Fela! is not quite the same as the Von Trapps singing 'Edelweiss,' but I think if you put good, interesting programming out there, people will respond."

Young says local groups like 100 Black Men of Charlotte have been pulling to get the show for a while. "We always survey audiences after shows about their experience, and ask what other shows they would like to see. But it's really rare to get random calls and emails asking for a particular show."

The Blumenthal Center hopes Charlotte's enthusiasm for Fela! will help dispel the Q.C.'s reputation for being a bit uptight.

"Unfortunately, Charlotte audiences have been characterized as being buttoned down, that people don't know how to have a good time," Gabbard says. "But we're vocally responsive as opposed to getting up and moving. People are very respectful here; they're considerate. They don't get up and boogie because they don't want to block someone else's view, but their hearts are with it."

The best audience, several members of the production say, was when the company flew to Nigeria to perform at the New Afrikan Shrine in Lagos, owned by Kuti's son Femi. The new location, a warehouse the size of five city blocks, recreated some of the more notable aspects of the old place, including a Yoruba shrine."

"That night as we performed, it felt like other beings were in the place. It felt like we were floating. We knew we were not alone in that place," Lambert says.

It was a full house, and at one point more than 4,000 attendees were on their feet, singing along to "Trouble Sleep." "I get chills just thinking about it," Garcia says. "It was an amazing experience."

While it may be next to impossible to recreate an experience like that in Charlotte, Lambert isn't worried about the Queen City audience. "Soul?" He says with a chuckle. "Fela will pull it out of you."

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