“When Bill pulled me into the project, there wasn’t a script,” Ngaujah says, referring to the show’s director and choreographer Bill T. Jones. “It was as ground floor as you could get.”
Working with co-writer Jim Lewis, Jones began with little more than a desire to spread the word and the sound of Kuti, who died in 1997. “Music was going to lead,” Jones says. “Music was where the truth was. And then when Sahr came into the picture it was a godsend, because he had educated himself in the music of Fela and in the whole lore of Fela.”
That lore includes forging the Afrobeat musical style, fueled by a big, driving percussion-and-sax sound and lyrics with enough political bite to keep Kuti in hot water — arrests, beatings — with the Nigerian authorities. (The lore also includes marrying 27 women one day in the 1970s.) His music’s punch and fury derives from Kuti’s lacerating critique of the official corruption and brutality in Nigeria, which he frequently protested from the stage with his corrosive songs; the musical takes the form of a farewell concert in Kuti’s Lagos nightclub, the Shrine.
Jones’s take on all this quickly earned a drumbeat of acclaim. “Fela!” graduated to Broadway in 2009 and earned 11 Tony Award nominations the next spring. Jones won for his choreography, and Ngaujah (pronounced en-GOW-jah) was among the best actor nominees.
“Essentially it took all the different skill sets I’d been developing over the years,” says the American-born Ngaujah, 35, who had spent most of his adult life acting, writing, and mostly directing in Europe. “Physically, I needed it to be as challenging as possible. I wanted it to be the toughest show that I’d ever done. And every day, I try to push the edge further.”
In addition to his Fela savvy, Jones was drawn to Ngaujah’s international background (Sierra Leone on his dad’s side, California on his mom’s). What Jones didn’t see in his potential star was anger.
“Sahr’s affable,” Jones says. “He’s open. He looks beautiful. He’s young. He doesn’t just walk, he bounds across the stage.” So when it came to the more raw and tougher aspects of Fela, Jones says, “he had to work on that.”
It must have clicked, because Ngaujah has been hailed as a dynamo in a role that Jones says he was born to play. “I’ve been blessed in this guy,” Jones says, “because he’s such a decent human being, and he has such a confidence. This role was made by him, so everybody else comes in and adds what they add to it. But he doesn’t have to worry about anybody ever taking it from him.” The director relates stories of people who knew Kuti intimately who are astonished by the accuracy of Ngaujah’s portrayal.