Boston Globe, June 6, 2010
NEW YORK – A performance of “Fela!,” the acclaimed Broadway show on the life of Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti, makes for the kind of culture clash rarely seen on the Great White Way. And that’s just in the audience.
During intermission at one performance this spring, two women asked whether a Nigerian writer sitting nearby had seen the show before, because he seemed to know all the lyrics. The women, regular theatergoers who’d come for the season’s hot ticket, had never heard of Fela. The plot – in which Fela and his many wives face a horrific army raid on their Lagos compound that leads to the death of Fela’s beloved mother – was opaque to them. The Nigerian writer, meanwhile, had authenticity quibbles: He found the pidgin English dialogue was oversimplified and lead actor Sahr Ngaujah’s Yoruba diction flawed.
Yet by show’s end – whether moved by the lavish choreography of director Bill T. Jones, the spot-on playing of the house band featuring members of Afrobeat group Antibalas, or dramatic turns in the story line – all joined in the standing ovation.
Thirteen years after his AIDS-related death in 1997, Fela is enjoying a high tide of exposure. The musical, which garnered 11 nominations for this year’s Tony Awards and travels to London in the fall, is just one component.