The title role in “Fela!”, the Tony-winning musical about Nigerian firebrand Fela Anikulapo Kuti, is too demanding for anyone to do eight times a week. Like Kuti’s hectoring, sweaty performances, playing Fela is a grueling workout: singing, dancing and ringleading as the Afrobeat bonanza chronicles the wild, rebellious life of the controversial singer-activist.
So as “Fela!” has progressed from its off-Broadway roots to Broadway, Europe, Africa and a U.S. tour launching at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, alternate performers have stepped into the top spot a couple times a week. But from its workshop beginnings in 2006, “Fela!” has really belonged to Sahr Ngaujah.
“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.
Ngaujah says, “Taking on Fela’s mannerisms — that’s something I’ve worked out over years. Like how do his hands work? How do his eyes work? How does he smoke? How does he dance?”
And, like Fela, Ngaujah has a broken front tooth. Must be a good story behind that.
“There are a few versions of that story,” Ngaujah says with a laugh. It happened in Amsterdam: The night before a big Dutch holiday, the ghost of Fela, knowing Ngaujah was going to play him, smacked the actor in the face.
“That’s the legend, actually,” Ngaujah says. “There’s other versions. Tequila. Bicycles.” He laughs again. “There’s all kinds of versions.”
Rehearsals for this tour have been underway at the Shakespeare Theatre’s administrative offices for a couple of days by the time Ngaujah bops into town. In his newsboy cap and riotously patterned shirt, he looks fresh off the streets of London. Sounds like it, too.
“Cheers,” he replies with a smile as a staffer welcomes him to the District.
During rehearsal, Ngaujah cools his heels as associate choreographer Maija Garcia drills the dancers. “Water,” Garcia calls out to the cast as Jones observes, chin in hand. “We flow like wa-tah.” And they do: Propelled by the Afrobeat rhythms from the band at the back of the room, the dancers sweep upstage and cascade back down, falling in line just so. When Ngaujah slips in, he is precise. He has done it a thousand times before.
“If you asked me six years ago, I wouldn’t be interested in doing something this long,” Ngaujah says, laughing. “I really love to explore. Constant exploration. It’s my life blood.” Days before arriving in the District, Ngaujah vacationed in Iceland, whale-watching and geyser-hopping.
Offstage, Ngaujah plays the part of the laid-back expat extremely well. Ask where he’s born, and Indiana is all he can say for sure. “Fort Wayne,” he begins to elaborate, sitting at a sidewalk cafe during a rehearsal lunch break. But wait. “I might have been born in Indianapolis,” he ruminates. Suddenly it’s an intrigue. “Now that you mention it, I’m not sure. I think it’s Fort Wayne. But I’m not sure about that one.”
He’s more certain about moving to Atlanta with his parents when he was 6.
There he spoke with what he calls a “straight English” diction. But the Atlanta kids teased him, so he started picking up the local slang, trying to fit in.
“My parents heard me talking like this one day at home, and they were like, ‘Nononononono. If I hear one “fixing” to come out of your mouth . . .’ ” He shakes his head at the memory of the scolding. “So essentially, I modified my speech at home to what was acceptable. And when I was with my mates, it was what would keep me on an even keel with them and not single myself out. So essentially. what I’m saying is that my tongue never settled on anything.”
The word “settled” doesn’t seem to apply much to the free-spirited Ngaujah, who mystically claims at least half a dozen global cities as home. (He pays rent in Brooklyn.) His path to “Fela!” was both erratic and exotic, starting with his immersion in church-based performances while living with his mother after his parents separated. There was always talk, he says, about “finding out God’s plan for your life.” At 18 — this he remembers precisely — he committed to the artistic pursuits that had been stimulating him.
The local theater troupe he was involved with hosted lots of international works, exposing Ngaujah to the European avant-garde. He was especially intrigued by the Dutch pieces he saw and was thrilled to get a chance to tour to Holland, acting in a two-person show when he was 20. Shortly afterward, he moved there to live.
“It wasn’t so strange for me,” Ngaujah says of the transcontinental leap. His mother was a missionary, and the house was routinely visited by colleagues popping in from around the globe and “debriefing” each other, he says, about conditions on the ground. “I was always meeting people from an early age,” Ngaujah says, “people from all over the world with amazing stories. And I never thought I would just stay, like, in America. No, I never imagined that.”
So his “Fela!” success, the kind that so many dyin’-to-flaunt-it Broadway Babies never taste, is less a homecoming than a detour. The piece he wrote, directed and starred in just prior to latching onto “Fela!” in New York was called “Conversations With Ice,” about the diamond trade, Sierra Leone child soldiers and what Ngaujah calls the “bling” subculture of hip-hop, and he’s plainly eager to get back to the colleagues he calls “my mates” in Holland. But he is also aware that he has been served a generous portion of showbiz fame, so he’s looking at options in film and TV. For now though, he’s focused on Fela, the role he’s signed on to play into next June.
“Ultimately this piece belongs to the world,” Ngaujah says. “Actually, the sooner the world embraces it, the sooner I’m going to go off and do something hopefully even more challenging and even more interesting.” He laughs, knowing the bar is set high: “I don’t know what that’s going to be.”
Pressley is a freelance writer.
Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Directed and choreographed by Jones. Through Oct. 9 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW.
Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.