Theatre: The Enigmatic Fela Anikulapo-Kuti Takes Over London

January 13, 2024
3 mins read


By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Don’t waste any time; just go and see this. If you haven’t been to the theatre recently this is the best time to return.  In the heart of the British theatre establishment, the Pan-African politics of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997), along with the mesmerising rhythms and radical melodies of Afrobeat, have found a temporary home. And this revolutionary musical is now cheering up the usually sober Olivier at the National Theatre.

Some commentators and critics may have thought that producer Bill T. Jones, whitewashes many of Fela’s personal flaws. But that’s not really the point, or is it?

Transferred to London from New York’s Broadway, where it continues its critical acclaim, Fela! is not just a celebration of a legend but a well-produced musical. On the stage, Fela! stands head and shoulders above its many West End competitors: the music is fabulous; there are exuberant dance routines and performances; and an intriguing life story – well told – if somewhat sketchily – of a mercurial and influential personality.  To top it all, the 20-plus ensemble works together like a dream. With Lagos ‘Area Boys’ and Fela’s ‘Queens’ leading excellently choreographed dance routines, on stage and in the audience. Melanie Marshall’s Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti (Fela’s formidable mother who was a Nigerian legend in her own right) and Paulette Ivory’s Sandra Iszadore (who greatly influenced the young Fela), are superb in their singing roles. And Sahr Ngaujah is first amongst equals as Fela.

Every inch of the auditorium that Marina Draghici designed is well utilised for the metamorphosis from a struggling musician to the heady, and slightly scary, ganja fumed world of Fela’s Lagos nightclub popularly known as The Shrine.  And there’s an excellent artwork done by Ghariokwu Lemi that covers every spare wall of the theatre; from the cover for Fela’s The Black President album to the African flags and sculptures that pay homage to the Orishas of Yoruba spirituality; alongside portraits of Black Power leaders and African independence fighters all overlooked by the image of Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti – to whom this epic piece is equally dedicated.

The 90 minutes of Act 1 sprint through Fela’s formative years and influences – as the son and grandson of Church of England priests, to the cold and wet London of the 1960s. And to the period when Fela discovered the likes of  John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, African highlife, Cuban music and the soul and funk of James Brown.

It should be no surprise then –  even to an audience trained in English reserve –  to be invited right from the start to recreate the inclusive experience of a night at the Shrine.  Charismatic Sahr Nguajah breaks the ice with Original no Artificiality and B.I.D.(Breaking It Down) –  which in truth is like cracking a polar ice cap – before ripples of movement fan out in Mexican wave style, among the theatre audience, many of whom may not be accustomed to rumpshaking in a theatre!

With Fela’s music (arranged by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean) expertly performed by the 12-piece Antilabas band, the narrative swirls back and forth; frenetically, like a marathon Afrobeat track, but always keeping an eye on the booming bassline, beats and rhythm  – the nyash – which drive the story.

Dramatising the departure of the bandleader and composer from Nigeria after a harrowingly recreated government raid on the Shrine compound that left his mother dead and many wounded, the production shifts between the past and the present, including a mystical dreamtime sequence.  Multi-media projections by Peter Nigrini fill in biographical gaps seamlessly, but perhaps only for those who know the music and history. But actual lyrics fused into the sparse dialogue compressing the marathon compositions and diatribes for which the musician is famous.

Small details make this even more impressive – during Coffin for Head of State – in memory of the superstars own act of defiance after the death of his mother – scores of slogan-daubed caskets are paraded through the auditorium – highlighting today’s political demands.  Amongst them are tributes to the late Nigerian writer and activist  Ken Saro-Wiwa and London’s Stephen Lawrence. And there’s placards denouncing Halliburton, Enron and HSBC during the sequence named after Fela’s I.T.T .

For those who point to the self-proclaimed President of the Kalakuta Republic’s controversial marriage to 27 women in 1978 as evidence of sexism, the portrayal of his Mother and Sandra Isadore is a trenchant riposte. The standout roles and powerful voices of Paulette Ivory and a regal Melanie Marshall echo these strong Black women, who moulded Fela’s evolution as a musician, and as a political and social activist, This celebration of women is reinforced by the Queens, whose elegant dancing mixes assertive strength with finesse and grace.

The bar has just been raised for musicals. This is theatre on an epic scale. It’s certainly not for shrinking violets – you can even imagine that you are in Rio, New Orleans, Trinidad, the Notting Hill Carnival  or even the  Shrine nightclub in Lagos. And in the words of another star of a Fela’ era, ‘lively up yourself’!


The National Theatre

London SE1

Until 06 January 2011

Box office: 020-7452 3000

Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine’s arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

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