“Fela!” only has a few more days left on Broadway; it comes to the end of its 32-show run on Saturday, Aug. 4. First-timers and devoted fans who have seen the musical multiple times alike are snapping up the last of the tickets.
Adesola Osakalumi projects a confident swagger but with a cool shyness that belies the bravado it takes to play Nigerian cultural hero Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Osakalumi told the Amsterdam News that his preparation for that portrayal is very intense.
“I meditate,” he revealed simply. “I get very calm and relaxed and look for room to let Fela come in; I take myself out of the equation and let Fela mingle and move forward. That way I’m not just acting, I am transforming.”
“Fela!” takes the audience from the vibrantly bright and not-quiet opening scenes where belligerent drums grab the waist of Afrobeat, American jazz and Cuban sway to the grimy funk and those “dirty guitars.”
And there is of course the yansh–the bass, the rawness.
Four men have played Kuti in the musical presentation of this man’s life. The show has seen the convincing magnificence of Sahr Ngaujah, the smooth delivery of Kevin Mambo, the stealth-like brilliance of Duain Richmond, the alternate Kuti, and the fabulous intensity of Osakalumi.
While Ngaujah’s talents have him heading to a new TV drama based in Hawaii, Osakalumi and Richmond keep the “Fela!” energy and inflections where they need to be.
Playing Kuti well is no small feat. He was an activist musician who took on Nigeria’s military regimes and built an anti-corruption movement for the poor and downtrodden while creating his Kalakuta Nation, producing over 70 albums and touring parts of Africa, America and Europe.
“I have done a lot of research into the role and physical preparation–getting myself physically prepared for the role,” said Osakalumi, “because there is a very physical component of the show that is definitely as demanding as the emotional component.”
Playing the Nigerian icon is something close to his heart.
“I was very familiar with Fela’s music. My father and uncle opened a record label, and Makossa Records [their label] was the first record label to distribute Fela’s music in America. So my father met Fela, knew Fela and did business with Fela.”
The stories he heard growing up gave him “insight into [Kuti’s] character and personality,” but with all the historical, cultural and even spiritual significance entwined in his story, Osakalumi added, “I feel it is a huge responsibility.
“My family is very excited, but they know how challenging it is and how much of a commitment it takes; I feel I’m continuing the legacy and work they started. They were instrumental in having his music exposed to the world, and particularly in North America, and now I have the honor and pleasure to portray him on stage,” he said.
This reporter–who also grew up on Kuti’s music and the stories and met him twice in England, once even having dinner with “The Queens,” his wives, and their children–ventured to ask Osakalumi about how Kuti’s family has responded to the play.
“Fela’s children–Femi, Seun and Kunle–are very supportive,” said Osakalumi. “All of them have seen the show either here in New York or in other states, and in Lagos, Nigeria, at the New African Shrine. That was an opportunity. They loved the show, and that was one of the most gratifying and best responses we’ve ever received.
“Fela is more than just another role, because he wasn’t a fictional character, There’s a responsibility to portray him in the right way. His family is still here. In Lagos they kept saying, ‘Fela is alive,’ so it does feel like a very spiritual production–like when the show deals with him talking to his mother, Funmilayo, the Egungun coming and him going to the land of the Orishas. All of these components make it not the usual musical theater.”
Osakalumi noted, though, that he has heard the arguments of critics who have not seen the musical. “Some people say, ‘Fela on Broadway? How authentic can it be?’ They don’t want to see something watered down, and some people may think it’s old, but when people come to see the show, they see it’s really not what they expected,” he said.
“In Lagos, the response was the total validation of the show in so many ways. They said the show was true to Fela’s legacy and spirit and to the fight. People leave the show feeling like they can take on the world and change their lives and their community, and that is definitely a good thing.”
Osakalumi declared, “This is one of the great leaders of our society. This is what Fela talked about–we have to understand and respect our own traditions, not be so open to what is outside when we have all this richness internally.”
In fact, some of the “guava-stomached” fat cats that Kuti himself often slammed paid big, big naira to see the award-winning musical.
“This musical has been able to reintroduce Fela to old and brand-new audiences from Brooklyn to Brixton, from Lagos to London,” said cultural activist Ogugua Iwelu proudly.
A key supporter of bringing “Fela!” to Broadway, Iwelu added, “This is history combined with culture and brings Fela’s movement back to the front pages.”
In meeting with fans after performances, Osakalumi said several have said to him, “I didn’t know about Fela before this show, but it has changed my life.”
With producers Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith and ?uestlove on board, Osakalumi waxes, “This creates a new audience. Hip-hop is the leading music, fashion and style indicator, so if these primary players give their backing, it can only help.”
It’s the same way that Patti LaBelle’s run as Funmilayo in the show’s first production created a new audience. “She brought not just a gospel audience, but also people who like R&B and soul. She brought her fans, who left learning about Fela.”
Stephen Hendel, one of the co-conceivers and producers of the musical, told the AmNews, “The enduring message of ‘Fela!’ is that standing up for human dignity will always be in style. The show floods you with feeling–the more you give to the show, the more you’ll see. It’s more than a good night out; it is a great experience, it has tremendous resonance beyond mainstream standard musical theater.”
At every performance, “Fela!” has the entire audience dancing and singing. The nervous, the shy and the bold get up and shake their yansh–their derrieres–(hopefully) in time with the beat. Audience participation is maximized beautifully.
As the producers donated dozens of tickets to a matinee of the show to Harambay, a summer day camp based in East New York, Hendel told the AmNews, “Bringing kids to the show will inspire their self-esteem, particularly young men–to get connected with the role model, with the male power that has been unleashed by the show. White kids should see the show, too. What Fela stood for, what he gave was overpowering. The general [Western] culture [should be] exposed to this courage and see what culture can stand for.”
Osakalumi declared, “Fela wanted the world to know his music. We are doing his work.”