BellaNaija.com was on the scene at the “FELA!” in Lagos event. The Broadway export captured the imagination of Lagosians and all Fela fans who grabbed the opportunity to experience the show.
Photographer Tunde “T.O” Owolabi was on the scene and captured these spectacular shots while BN Contributor, Uzo Orimalade shares her “Close Encounter of the FELA! Kind“.
When news came through that the Tony award winning Broadway musical Fela was coming to Lagos, I knew I had to attend. Despite the fact that I am not a huge Fela fan, all the hype surrounding the show, the producers, Beyonce’s black face photoshoot, the non-Nigerian cast and a dearth of things to do in Lagos made it a must-see. I blackmailed the hubby and off we went to the new Expo Hall at Eko Hotel and Suites for one of the 7pm shows.
The ticketing, verification and seating process was surprisingly organized and relatively stress free which I thought was a good omen for the rest of the night. It was a bit disconcerting though to have the seating allocations go to the wind at about 8.40pm when there was a mad scramble for the empty VIP and RG 1 – 3 seats. The event organizers had made it clear that all guests were to be seated by 8.30pm or seat allocations could not be guaranteed. But considering that a lot of the guests were on queues outside the hall waiting to have tickets verified, it seemed a bit unfair that after paying for premium seats, the guests were penalized for the slow progress of the verification process.
The Expo Hall had been transformed into an eye-awakening African Shrine with graffiti featuring Fela prominently displayed and a particularly eerie picture of Funmilayo Kuti hard to miss. As we waited for the show to begin, newspaper headlines from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s flashed across the stage setting the context for the era of the show.
The show kicked off at 9.05pm – only 5 minutes after its slated start time with Sahr Ngaujah (playing the title role) walking through the audience to the stage both arms raised in the air Fela style clad in a light blue and white ensemble that hugged every part of his slim frame to wild applause from the audience.
Fela! – the show exudes energy. It traces Fela’s life – his musical education as a young man in Lagos, his student days in London to his return to Nigeria, his foray into finding his own style and coming into his own told through flashing images on a projector screen behind the cast, pulsating music reminiscent of the era – swing, soul, jazz, funk and of course work by Fela and gyrating, swaying, grinding dancers that had my head spinning – in a good way.
As the show progressed, the audience corrected Sahr Ngaujah’s pronunciation of Yoruba phrases and peculiar words like Naija in a good humored way which brought to the fore the furiously articulated argument about the use of a completely foreign cast to bring the life story of a Nigeria treasure to the public. While I have my views on this subject, this piece is more about the Fela experience….Sahr Ngaujah didn’t butcher things up too much which might be as a result of his Sierra Leonean heritage but I imagine that Kevin Mambo (the title role alternate) would have a harder time with the Nigerian audience.
Apart from the show being thoroughly entertaining and a great sing-a-long for those that know Fela’s songs, the sheer force of the production tells us more about this recording artist and political agitator than a lot of non-Fela fans probably know. The show makes no apologies for Fela’s love of marijuana or women but shows a man living life on his own terms and his accompanying struggles. It also sheds a lot of light on the relationship between Fela and his beloved mother – Funmilayo. Her influence on him, on Nigerian society and the circumstances around her death are a crucial part of the Fela story.
A lot has to be said about Sahr Ngaujah’s Fela. I never went to the shrine but have seen enough footage of Fela to know that he nailed that air of insolent confidence that so embodied Fela. There was a point in the show, when he stood shirtless in the middle of the stage, with his sunglasses on staring defiantly back at the audience that I broke out in goosebumps. I also at that moment saw the inspiration that must have guided Dapo Oyebanjo’s creation of the artist we know as Dbanj.
The women in this show SHINE. Lillias White plays Funmilayo Kuti and is breath taking. Her voice is exquisite and her presence is eerie and very strong. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the show – Fela travels to the afterlife to meet his mother and Lillias takes that scene and makes it otherworldly leaving us in absolutely no doubt why Funmilayo was so loved by Fela and why her spirit haunts him. Saycon Sengbloh is also impressive as Sandra responsible for introducing Fela to the black power movement.
The show ended to a standing ovation and after the cast introductions were made, Seun Kuti came on stage to finish off “Gentleman” to more applause from the audience. The final highlight of the evening which was also head-scratching and a bit weird and uncomfortable for me, was the mounting of the stage by a lady who came on with Seun Kuti. Clad in iro and buba and an aso-oke wrap around her hips, she proceeded to gyrate and grind against Sahr Ngaujah in a style reminiscent of the original Fela dances. She wound her waist and wrapped her arms tightly around Sahr’s neck as if willing herself to an orgasm. I was fascinated and mortified at the same time. I kept asking the people around me who she was – my guess – one of the ladies from the original Kalaluta republic.
I loved the show and given the chance, I would see it again and again and again. I left so proud that Fela lived and went home to my Fela playlist on my ipod and I haven’t stopped grooving to the Afrobeat sounds of Abami Eda since.
Photo Credit: Tunde Owolabi – www.tundeowolabi.com