Portrait of a Portion of a Man

‘Fela!’ introduces a real-life character too big for one show

September 28, 2011

Sahr Ngaujah earned a Tony nod in 2010 for his portrayal of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Portraying the title character in the Tony Award-winning musical “Fela!” is a daunting task, even for 25-year theater veteran Sahr Ngaujah.

In the 2½ hours of the show, which runs through Oct. 9 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harmon Hall, Ngaujah plays Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian inventor of Afrobeat, a dance-happy blend of jazz, funk and West African rhythms. He also plays Fela the political activist, Fela the pot-smoker, Fela the comedian and Fela the man who married 27 women in one day.

“And that’s just the Fela we’re introducing. We didn’t talk about the fact that he died of AIDS. We didn’t go that deep into his whole presidential bid. It’s a musical,” Ngaujah says. “Still, we weren’t trying to make a show just to make people dance and sing. We wanted to inspire people to look deeper [into Fela’s history] for themselves.”

The show, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, has big names behind it: producers Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Ngaujah’s performance, which earned him a Tony nomination in 2010, is an exhilarating way of getting to know Kuti (and his music, as the show’s score is dominated by the musician’s songs).

“On the one hand, my task was typical of building a character. It was to find Fela’s voice, the way he uses his hands, his eyes, his posture, the way he talks to his band and to the audience,” Ngaujah says. “On the other hand, what was more important was finding the links between Fela’s psyche, the text and the objectives the show was trying to meet in its storytelling.

“Fela is not a perfect kind of person,” Ngaujah continues. “He also had contradictions to him. To me, he represents the complexity of living in our modern world.”

Backstory
Fela is at a nightclub on his private compound, which he’s dubbed the Kalakuta Republic. He’s decided to leave Nigeria and to give a farewell concert, which turns out to be a lyrical autobiography. The climax comes when military forces storm Kalakuta, arrest Kuti, torture his wives and throw his mother from a window to her death.

Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harmon Hall, 610 F St. NW, through Oct. 9, $25-$115; 202-547-1122. (Gallery Place)
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Shauna Miller | September 28, 2011