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Theater Review: Fela ! – educating Americans about Afrobeat and Nigerian politics

Adesola Osakalumi in Fela! (photo by Sharen Bradford)

A kick-ass on stage band and amazing dancers highlight this overly-earnest attempt to encapsulate the larger-than-life Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician who became world-famous, both for his creation of insistent and penetrating Afrobeat music, and for using his music to taunt and prod better treatment from Nigerian despots. Fela is appearing through June 2nd at The Paramount Theatre in Seattle.

The experience of Fela, the musical, is uplifting and energizing, throughout especially the first act. Presented as if the audience is at a concert in Nigeria, at Fela Kuti’s performance space, The Shrine, it’s 1978 and Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, has recently been killed after a raid at his home. After years of withstanding beatings and worse, Fela is ready to abandon Nigeria, but wants his mother’s blessing, first.

With the help of projected lyrics, without which most of us wouldn’t understand a word of many of the songs, his activism and his taunting of authority is revealed. But turning Americans into a brave audience of Nigerians risking all kinds of government revenge just for attending a concert is much bigger a task than this show can manage.

What it does manage is to brilliantly showcase Fela’s actual music, help us understand his history and his importance to Nigeria, and stir our admiration for his family and his sacrifices. Clearly the musicians, dancers, and actors on stage deeply believe in the work they are presenting.

It’s not easy to make the transitions to the more somber aspects of the evening, and those aspects would fail without the amazing contribution of Melanie Marshall as the ghost of Funmilayo. Her soaring voice and command create standout moments throughout the production.

Adesola Osakalumi, the main Fela (Duain Richmond performs occasionally in his place in a draining lead role), is a charismatic and riveting performer, suitable for a big role such as this. He makes us believe in Fela’s determination and self-assurance, someone who would have enough charisma to marry 27 women at once, and still revere the American Sandra Isadore, who helped him become the revolutionary, and his mother.

Michelle Williams, of Destiny’s Child, is part of the draw to the tour, and she has a terrific voice, though her role does not create the kind of belief in the specialness of Sandra Isadore in the way the show emphasizes Fela. She feels, therefore, underused.

Information on the tour can be found at but the only upcoming dates of the tour currently on the site are June 4-9 at Oakland, CA’s Paramount Theatre. Check the web site for more tour dates.

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