The Nigerian musical and political revolutionary Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a larger-than-life figure, an artist who defied cultural norms and years of attacks from his country’s brutal dictatorship. He is a unique and powerful but unlikely figure to be the subject of mainstream American entertainment.
And yet Fela! — the hit Broadway musical playing Tuesday through Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts — has been wildly successful, bringing Fela’s name and ideas to a much bigger audience than he ever reached during his touring peak in the ’70s and ’80s.
The show’s creators are almost as surprising as their subject — suburban Jewish businessman Stephen Hendel and avant-garde choreographer Bill T. Jones, who would seem to have nothing in common with their subversive, marijuana-loving, polygamous inspiration. But he has enabled them to tell a revolutionary story in a ground-breaking way.
“This was a story that no one knew and that we could tell any way we wanted, and in a way that was outside what the American musical had become,” says Hendel, a commodities trader who is Fela!’s producer and originator. “A story of struggle and overcoming obstacles and standing up for the universal cause of social justice and human dignity.”
Hendel was overwhelmed when he first heard Fela’s music in 1999, two years after the musician’s death from AIDS in 1997. “It’s so thrilling and overpoweringly beautiful, sensual and hot,” he says. “His lyrics are so meaningful … he was using his gifts to speak truth to power.” Hendel’s only theatrical experience was escorting his wife, a Broadway producer and Tony Awards voter, to musicals he found pleasant but bland. He became obsessed with the idea of producing a show about Fela — which his wife’s experienced compatriots said couldn’t be done.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Hendel says. After several years, a friend suggested Jones, a modern dance choreographer famed for his sharp intellect and history of tackling socially charged subjects. As it turned out, Jones knew Fela’s music. He agreed to be choreographer and director, intrigued not just by the possibilities of bringing Fela’s story to life but by the challenges of winning over mainstream audiences to Fela’s intense music and politics, and working outside the abstract realm of modern dance.
“Many people who come from my generation of performance makers or dance makers, we really were not concerned with narrative,” says Jones, 61. “Going into commercial theater and Fela!, the question was how can you tell a story and at the same time absorb the ideas that have obsessed me all these years? ... My idea was to keep it as free as you can, but make sure you’re able to ride an audience, to keep them going forward.”
Fela Kuti was a complex, extraordinary figure. His parents fought for Nigerian independence from British colonial rule, but Fela was a musician before he was an activist — though that too was a form of rebellion. When his parents sent him to study medicine in London in the late ’50s, he quit to make music, absorbing jazz, James Brown and Cuban mambo and combining them with African styles and rhythms to create a dense, urgent music he called Afrobeat. Visiting the United States in the late ’60s, he met a female Black Panther who changed his ideas about politics and race (a key moment in the show).
He dedicated himself to challenging authority in his music and his life, denouncing injustice and repression, boosting African identity and the plight of the poor, leading the Nigerian government to arrest him, often with brutal beatings, 200 times. In Lagos he built a communal compound/recording studio he called The Kalakuta Republic, where he lived with his band and the back-up singers and dancers he called his “queens” — marrying 27 of them. His tours were epic, with scores of musicians filling airplanes and buses with marijuana smoke on their way to shows that lasted for hours. Although his success could have let him live abroad, he remained in Nigeria — even after the infamous 1977 incident when government forces invaded and burned his compound, beating and raping the inhabitants, and murdering Fela’s mother by throwing her out a window.
Fela! tells this story through flashbacks and musical sequences, set at an imaginary concert at his famous club, The Shrine. The cast moves out into the audience, and exhorts them to participate. The show is known for getting people on their feet. Like Fela himself, and like Parliament Funkadelic leader George Clinton’s exhortation to “move your ass and your mind will follow,” Fela!’s creators sought to engage hips and related emotions first, and intellect second.
“I wanted us to make something hugely captivating, a sensual experience,” Hendel says. “Something that would make people change.”
For Jones, who is African-American and gay and has endured controversies over his own work, dance is a naturally potent way to draw people into potentially challenging areas. The show debuted off-Broadway in 2008 and went to Broadway in 2009, as President Obama was elected — a charged moment echoed in Fela’s repeated call to “make me your black president!” Exuberant music and dance sequences make his blunt sexuality, confrontational politics and Yoruba spiritual beliefs more seductive and comprehensible to Western audiences.
“We had to find a way to cook it down to a popular entertainment where people didn’t want to be preached to, where they’d be willing to learn but they want to do it in a way where their butts were moving,” Jones says. “When the music is powerful enough and the right people are in the room amazing things happen and amazing transgression is possible. That’s what we were doing, but using Fela as a teacher.”
The lessons got through. Fela! drew a stream of celebrities in New York, including Madonna, Prince, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama. Several, including Questlove of The Roots, and Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, signed on as producers and backers.
“Fela is now part of the American cultural conversation,” Hendel says.
The touring cast includes former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams as Sandra Isadore, the feisty Black Panther who changed Fela’s politics during their affair.
Williams says the real Isadore gave her insight into the couple’s fiery relationship. “She will say ‘I had those dynamics of I hate you today, I want to tear your shirt off the next.’ ” But Williams, who will appear at a charity event for a South Florida anti-bullying group this week, says she has also drawn political inspiration from the show.
“This show hasn’t just made me better, it’s made me smarter,” she says. “We can get so caught up in what’s going on celebrity-wise. But I was getting to the age where I have to see for myself … what’s happening in politics, what will affect my future. It sounds cliché, but the message is we have to keep standing, keep fighting.”
Hendel and Jones hopes those messages, and the African and Afro-Caribbean dance and music (tour director and associate choreographer is Maija Garcia, who is Cuban-American and has family in South Florida) will resonate strongly in Miami. One draw could be Gelan Lambert, a Miami-raised Haitian-American dancer who graduated from the New World School of the Arts and created a unique style of tap dancing for the role of J.K., Fela’s best friend. (The New York Times called him “brilliant” and “sui generis”).
Lambert, who is hosting a reception and teaching a class at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, thinks Fela’s struggles against a repressive government will inspire many in Miami.
“To me what resonates in the story is overcoming those kind of obstacles — to me that’s similar to the Haitian story,” Lambert says. “That’s something anyone from the Caribbean can relate to. So at the end you leave with a sense of urgency and resolve.”
The show’s teachings have been endorsed by none other than Fela’s son Femi Kuti, a musician who leads his father’s band. Kuti saw the show on Broadway and subsequently hosted a performance at his father’s rebuilt compound in Lagos, where he now lives. The show drew thousands of people and helped revitalize Fela’s legacy and reputation in Nigeria.
“I was very impressed — I cried,” Kuti told The Miami Herald last November. “They felt the story, they played it like it was their story. It was overwhelming for me.”
Although his father was dedicated to African identity and autonomy, Kuti says Fela’s story is better brought to Western audiences by Americans. “If the story was told by a Nigerian or an African you would not understand,” he says. “And this story is too important for you not to understand.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the year in which the Nigerian government invaded Fela’s compound.