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New York City Theater Dispatch: Jay-Z and Will Smith present Fela! on Broadway

Me: “Are we allowed to bring drinks into the theater?”
Bartender: “Yeah - they want everyone to find the right mood (chuckles).”  
Me: “Is there a break between acts?”
Bartender: “Ah ha - about an hour-and-a-half in.”
Me: “In that case I’ll take two Coronas. Actually - you know what - make it three.”

Before the music pops I realize Fela! is unlike the Broadway spectacles that test my ability to stay awake and hold down food. Beyond the bartender’s invitation to imbibe while cross-rhythms ricochet around the room, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre is alive and outfitted like Fela Kuti’s Shrine night club back in 1970s Nigeria, complete with kaleidoscopic décor and performers mingling with showgoers beforehand.  

Provocatively played by Sahr Ngaujah, African musician-griot legend Kuti and his posse make it clear up front that this is no standard musical. It’s more like a raucous concert - at least for those of us who cheer and dance throughout the show and pass joints beneath the marquee during intermission. From the moment Kuti surfaces and trades his cigarette for a saxophone, he serenades the crowd at length, inviting the whole audience into his hedonistic commune.

Everybody wants in, and before long even older Caucasians in the crowd begin to groove along. As realized in Kuti’s mocking a London Times reporter for lamely inquiring about his “weed” and “pussy” pastimes, homeboy’s music may require “fair-skinned, tea-drinking” folks to loosen up a bit. That said; Kuti’s message - which is hardly candy-coated for mass consumption - is universal: there is no tolerance for authorities that treat humans like garbage.

So you think you can dance? Not after seeing this you won’t. Fela! might be a political instrument, but, like the man who inspired this show, it resonates through sensory allurement. With influences from Coltrane to Colon, Afrobeat has the ability to move bones, as is demonstrated by the bootylicious dancers shaking through the theater. On band duties, Brooklyn’s Antibalas does much more than merely play the background; without the group’s authentic vibe and horn power this rendering would ring hollow.

As an agitator, Kuti was leagues more badass than tools like Bono, Sting, and Springsteen. In American terms, he's more like Lenny Bruce meets Tupac - a rebel truly unafraid of repercussions that might come from broadcasting the ugly truth. To that end, Fela! illustrates a man whose music ultimately inspired more than one million pilgrimages to Kuti’s funeral in 1997; if word gets out about this, then bet your bottom that a modern Afrobeat renaissance is looming.

As the lead, Ngaujah convinces - both as the joint-puffing friendly misogynist Kuti, and as the movement leader who ran for president behind the slogan “Let us turn Nigeria upside down.” It is not enough to act, dance, and sing brilliantly; this role requires calculated call-and-response rapport with white audience members, and that can prove difficult for any star performer. Ngaujah dutifully channels Kuti’s skill, arrogance and swagger; I didn’t check, but I’m sure more than a few women left behind moist seats.

I’ve never felt so comfortable drinking canned beer in a hoodie at a Broadway show, nor have I enjoyed one this much since Starlight Express 20 years ago. Fela!’s unofficial tag line is “originality no artificiality,” and that directive carries through the whole shebang. Fringe aficionados who are weary that this is a haphazardly scrapped Mamma Mia-type production can ditch their doubts; likewise, heads need not worry that Jay-Z and Will Smith signed on as producers. Those two clowns might have sold out long ago, but Fela never did - not in real life, and not on Broadway either.

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