Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.


Also see Susan's reviews of Fahrenheit 451 and The Country Girl

Sahr Ngaujah and the cast of Fela!
After successful runs in London, on Broadway and internationally, the musical Fela! is launching its American tour at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall in Washington. This exhilarating look at the life and activism of Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is the best kind of interactive theatrical experience: the cast invites the audience members to join in the action from their seats, so no one needs to worry about possible embarrassment.

Fela (Sahr Ngaujah, who alternates with Adesola Osakalumi) used his musical innovations—including the creation of a new genre, Afrobeat—in an effort to stand up on behalf of Africans against corrupt governments and the practice of multinational corporations of making money off the continent's resources without giving anything back. Although he was often harassed by those in power, attacked, arrested and jailed on false charges, and forced into exile, he continued the struggle until his death from AIDS in 1997.

Director-choreographer Bill T. Jones has staged the performance as a visit to Fela's club in Lagos, The Shrine, during his heyday in the late 1970s. Marina Draghici's scenic design and Robert Wierzel's lighting design use projections, vivid color, and sweeping beams of light to turn a 775-seat auditorium into a crowded, steaming nightclub.

Ngaujah originated the role of Fela in both the London and New York productions and now every move, every intonation, every shift of mood from rowdy to bawdy to impassioned and enraged, is second nature. That's not to say that any of it is automatic or phoned-in; he demonstrates his commitment with each word and note. As Fela's mother Funmilayo, a civil rights leader and her son's inspiration, Melanie Marshall is a majestic presence with a ringing voice.

The entire company brings to life Jones' vision, which can be summed up in a lyric (not one of Fela's, but certainly true to his philosophy): "Free your mind and your ass will follow." The emphasis on liberation comes through in both frenzied, though never uncontrolled, physical movement and a call for social justice.

Shakespeare Theatre Company

Fela! September 13th - October 9th
Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones
Music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
Additional lyrics by Jim Lewis
Additional music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean
Based on the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
Conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis, and Stephen Hendel
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: Sahr Ngaujah/Adesola Osakalumi at selected performances
Funmilayo: Melanie Marshall
Sandra: Paulette Ivory
Ismael: Ismael Kouyaté
J.K. Braiman (tap dancer), Egungun: Gelan Lambert
Djembe 'Mustafa': Rasaan-Elijah "Talu" Green
Ensemble: Sherinne Kayra Anderson, Jonathan Andre, Cindy Belliot, Nandi Bhebhe, Catia Mota da Cruz, Nicole Chantal DeWeever, Jacqui DuBois, Poundo Gomis, Oneika Phillips, Thierry Picaut, Jermaine Rowe, Daniel Soto, Jill Marie Vallery, Iris Wilson, Aimee Graham Wodobode
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones
Harman Center for the Arts, Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St. N.W.
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-547-1122 or 877-487-8849 or

Photo: Monique Carboni