Fela! – An Atlanta Theater Fans Review

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The cast of Fela! Photo by Monique Carboni.

The cast of Fela! Photo by Monique Carboni.

The year is 1978 and the place is Lagos, Nigeria. From the moment you enter the Moorish inspired Fox Theater, you are transported from the gridlock and hustle of 21st century Atlanta to one last electrifying performance at Fela’s club,The Africa Shrine.

Starring Atlanta native Duain Richmond, Fela! is the inspiring true story of Fela AnikulapoKuti, the father of the Afrobeat music genre (a blend of funk, jazz and African highlife rhythms). Fela! begins with the hipgyrating, fingerpopping rhythmic layers of the opening song “Scatter”. Everybody say yeh, yeh!”, Kuti shouts and the audience meets him with a raucous round of “Yeh, Yeh’s” in return. This sets the tone for the passionate, humorous and sobering tale of Kuti’s life as he becomes the griot of his story, recounting his adventures in miseducation, social activism and his many loves through a frenzy of dance and music.

Throughout his performance Duain Richmond channels Fela with abandon. Mr. Richmond tirelessly gyrates, sings and blows his sax between telling his story his vision of a more democratic Nigeria and of the corrupted police state that is the reality of Nigeria. His baritone  voice, spot on accent, sharp-tongued wit and lithe, sinewy musculature is the pure embodiment of Kuti. He simply IS Fela!

Michelle Williams as Sandra Isadore in Fela! Photo by Carol Rosegg

Michelle Williams as Sandra Isadore in Fela! Photo by Carol Rosegg

The nine women dancers who represent Kuti’s 27 cowives or “Queens” are a constant presence on stage. They dote on him, light his “cigarettes”, fetch his sax and wipe the sweat from his brow. They are not, however, simply subservient whores and prostitutes, as was often reported by the press. No, they are representative of a common bond in the name of social change and democracy. They would lay their lives down for him and this is communicated through a tireless and hypnotic frenzy of African dance and modern movement. While their connection with Kuti is overt, they exhibit a subtle disdain for Kuti’s AfricanAmerican lover,  Sandra Izsadore played by Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child fame.

While Ms. Williams can reasonably vocally execute the music as written, her lack of enunciation often made it difficult to understand the lyrics especially during pivotal, complex and passionate moments between Sandra and Fela. At times, her microphone seemed programmed to compensate for the chirpy quality of her voice. The bit of choreography she had felt and looked awkward and stilted although it was meant to have been graceful and sensual. Overall, although Ms. Williams is a well-known box office draw, her performance as Sandra, who was pivotal in the development of Kuti’s musical style, and carries the title of the Mother of Afrobeat, was simply adequate at best.

Duain Richmond as FELA! Photo by Rameen Gasery.

Duain Richmond as FELA! Photo by Rameen Gasery.

Rounding out the cast of leads is Briton, Melanie Marshall as Funmilayo AnikulapoKuti, Fela’s deceased mother. Ms. Marshall first appears on stage for short moments to set up Kuti’s admiration of his mother’s accomplishments and guilt over her death at the hands of Nigerian soldiers. She is seen bathed in soft lighting that represents a heavenly halo projected onto a scrim at the rear of the set. Her full vocal range, however, is not apparent until the second act in the song “Rain” in which she urges the younger Kuti (who has called on the spirit of Egungun to communicate with his mother), not to use her death as an excuse to run from his destiny. Ms. Marshall stealthily moved from a buttery alto range into a pure, ethereal and heady coloratura soprano voice that left the audience breathless and tingling.

The legendary and masterful Bill T. Jones’ choreography, which includes traditional African, modern dance and tap movement, is easily executed by an ensemble of veteran dancers from the three time Tony winning original Broadway production. The band is composed of western
and African instruments including Fela’s signature bass saxophones and the Djembe played with prowess by Rasaan Elijah “Talu” Green as Mustafa.

To paraphrase lyrics from the song BID (Breaking it Down), whether you have been following Fela or you are brand new and curious about the man and his music, you will surely enjoy the sights, sounds and movement that is the phenomenal Fela! Just over 90 minutes long, Fela! offers a little something for everyone. Be warned however, this show is at times raw and examines adult content and themes. Everybody say Yeh, Yeh!…Yeh, Yeh!

Fela! will run through Wednesday, March 6th at the Fabulous Fox Theater. Performance schedule is as follows:

  • Saturday, March 2nd at 2 P.M. and 8 P.M.
  • Sunday, MArch 3rd at 2 P.M. and 7 P.M
  • Tuesday, March 5th at 8 P.M.
  • Wednesday, March 6th at 8 P.M.

Tickets can be purchased online at www.foxatltix.com, by calling 855-ATL-TIXX (855-285-8499) and at the Fox Theater Box Office (660 Peachtree Street Northeast) Monday-Friday, 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., and Saturday 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. Ticket prices range from $38 to $63.50.

– Michelle Suzette Jones