Fela! A Musical Theatre Immortalizes the Father of Afrobeat

Step back in time to 1978 and join musician, activist, and Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti at his farewell show in the legendary Afrika Shrine nightclub at Olney Theatre in FELA! An Afrobeat theatrical Dance Musical.

4 mins read

“I’m not your average politician,” said Fela Kuti.

For many Africans, Fela is far more than this. As an artist and revolutionary, he mobilized people towards a conscious awakening with Afrobeat, encouraging them to fight against authority and injustice. It is this legendary figure who drew crowds to the Tony award-winning Afrobeat musical, FELA!, directed by Lili-Anne Brown. The musical co-produced by Onley Theatre Center and Round House Theatre debuted at the Onley Theatre, decades after the original 2009 Broadway production “Fela on Broadway”. Grab a ticket to the play

Duain Richmond, center, in "Fela!"
Duain Richmond, center, in “Fela!” 

“I think the concept ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ might be a bourgeois statement. Art exists beyond that definition.” Poet and theater artist and activist, Christopher Prince, holds that it is crucial to combine musicals with political activism, “It makes me think of coming out of the space of authenticity.” Speaking of Black skin and recognizing our authentic selves in the music is what makes it political without being pushy.

“It is very energetic, soulful, and educational,” this is how an audience member describes the play.

The Theatre, a dance musical, immerses the audience in the story of Fela, portrayed by Duain Richmond, who was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa. This interactive musical engages the audience in lively banter with the cast – a call-and-response “everybody say yay-yay,” and an invitation to learn and dance to the rhythm. We find ourselves immersed in an African party. 

Fela’s music and political thoughts, both deeply rooted in Nigeria, were also significantly shaped by global influences. He studied music in the UK and organized a band playing African-influenced music. Returning to his beloved land, Nigeria, Fela developed Afrobeat, a musical infusion of West African highlife and Yoruba sounds with American funk, jazz, and soul. This is not to be confused with Afrobeats, a music genre inspired by the infusion of music all over Africa. 

Duain Richmond left and Shantel Cribbs and in Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre's co-production of “Fela!”
Duain Richmond left and Shantel Cribbs in Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre’s co-production of “Fela!”

Upon arriving in the US, Fela had a relationship with African American singer Sandra Izsadore, who led him to discover the difference and connection between the Black consciousness in Africa and in America. Izsadore introduced him to the Black Power movement and the communist theoretical foundation of Blackness. This influential figure was brought to life by Shantel Cribbs, a musical theater actress, singer-songwriter, and dancer.

At the beginning of the show, there is a British journalist played by a Black actor with a British accent. In the early 20th century, White faces played all other ethnicities on the stage. The all–Black stage of FELA!, on the contrary, creates a space for the Black narrative. It is the Black people who are telling their story about anti-colonialism from a Black perspective.

The exquisitely choreographed production contrasts authority with oppressed individuals, successfully visualizing their suffering under a brutal and corrupt Nigerian government. The high-standard artistic elements bring the narrative to life, thanks to the collective efforts of choreographer Breon Arzell, costume designer Reuben Echoles, Director of Production Pope Jackson, and an ensemble of creative team members.

“Zombie” is one of Fela’s best-known musical pieces. All the actresses and actors are singing and dancing like zombies. Zombies are scary, but they are also pathetic. These dead brains move exactly as they are told to “Zombie” is a stinging satire of the Nigerian soldiers. A similar song track is “Mosquito,” referring to the corrupt government officials. By using these metaphors, Fela held his enemies in contempt.

Shantel Cribbs, left and Duain Richmond in Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre’s co-production of “Fela!” 

Another important piece of the storyteller is the recognition of women’s contribution. Throughout the show, a portrait of Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, is displayed at the top right of the stage, illuminated at all times. The message is clear; Fela’s lifelong spiritual guide is Funmilayo, his mother, a key influential figure in his life.

Actress, director, and writer Melody A. Betts successfully portrayed Funmilayo as an impressive character in the play. “The mother was amazing”, said a number of the audience.

Funmilayo was introduced by her son in the first scene as a political activist and feminist pioneer. In the first half of the show, she was cast on the second level of the stage, an artistic approach that sought to enable the audience to distinguish her from other characters. Funmilayo was thrown from a second-story window and died weeks later.

In protest, Fela asked that the people to “B.Y.O.C” – Bring Your Own Coffin. The revolutionaries placed her coffin in front of the army barracks to protest against the government’s atrocities. A message to show Funmilayo, the heroine, was committed to this struggle even after her death.

Actress, director, and writer Melody A. Betts plays Fela’s mother Funmilayo

Fela’s, thirst for spiritual guidance, saw him invoke the spirit of his dead mother. Funmilayo shows up in the scenic spiritual world – a beacon of light on his journey of revolution. The music and singing sacralized Fela’s mother after her death, bringing the show to the climax.

Lynda Sutton Jones, an art dealer of African descent, was very pleased to see Fela’s mother portrayed in the play, “What impressed me is how women influenced what he did. You don’t hear much about it in African culture. But now that I know the market woman, his mother, started with teaching him things and all that work, we deserve that credit.”

As referred to by an audience, the musical, FELA!, at Olney Theatre Center will provide you with a “whole 360 experience”.

“First of all, the mother was amazing, the vocals. The Fela storytelling was animated but still authentic and grounded. The choreography was amazing. The staging was amazing.”

Be transported to 1978, to meet musician, activist, and global superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti at his farewell show at the Afrika Shrine nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria. After losing his own mother in a dictator’s violent attack, Fela’s final act in Nigeria is to use his iconic music—a spirited blend of traditional African drumming, jazz, and funk—to tell his story of survival and global revolution through Afrobeat and floor-shaking dance.

Fela! –Grab a ticket to the play

Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.
Dates: Through Aug. 13.
Prices: $42-$100.

Written by Tina Zhang, edited by Adedayo Fashanu & Abolaji Omitogun

Leave a Reply