Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith Present FELA!
Special to The Informer | 1/19/2012, 2:49 p.m.
Check out the Hit Broadway Musical Live in Los Angeles at The Ahmanson theater Now until January 22nd!
Fela! first came to life in 2000 when New Yorker, Stephen Hendel, stumbled across a CD of the Nigerian firebrand, iconoclast, rabble-rouser and composer of genius, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He was so impressed with the music and with Fela's keen sense of social justice that he determined to create a theatre piece expressing the timeless and universal message contained in how Fela committed his gift as a voice for the disenfranchised.
In 2004 Steve Hendel joined forces with Tony Award-winning choreographer, Bill T Jones, who he invited to direct the play. Bill then brought in writer Jim Lewis and together the three set about mounting a series of workshops, involving musicians, actors, dancers and technicians. It soon became clear that attempting to compress the entirety of Fela's turbulent and event-filled life into a stage play was impossible. They elected to create a painting; an ode to determination and truth to power by concentrating on one short, highly-charged period during the late seventies, using it as a vehicle through which to present a prime example of commitment and courage and art used as an expression of human dignity.
Fela had used his extraordinary big-band music as a medium in which he created biting, satirical diatribes against the excesses of successive military regimes in his native Nigeria. Any form of injustice, oppression, mismanagement, corruption was fearlessly and ferociously attacked, using eloquent harangues that specifically named the perpetrators.
He had paid a steep price for his bravery in the face of powerful and implacable enemies, with 200 arrests and countless beatings that left scars all over his body. But even these beatings didn't stop him. "Ah well, they didn't kill me", he would proclaim as he wrote yet another acerbic lyric and gave inflammatory quotes to the press.
Fela died in August1997. AIDS, they said, but as far as those close to him were concerned, he died of one beating too many. He was a giant of a man, but a man nevertheless. The system can only take so much. One million people attended his funeral.
His legacy was a testament of incredible courage, together with almost 50 albums of music that are now available globally through Knitting Factory Records. His message of transparency, honest government and justice for all is still as relevant today as when it was when first released 4 decades ago -- not just in Nigeria but globally.
Inspired by Fela's courage and incredible musical mastery, it nevertheless took two years of development for the creative and technical team to reach the stage where they were ready to begin mounting the piece Off-Broadway at a New York theatre complex, 37 Arts.
They spent three months at 37 Arts perfecting the production before they were ready to open "Fela! The Musical". The show was an immediate and unmitigated critical and public success. Celebrities flocked to see the show; Jay-Z, Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Christine Amanpour, Charlice Theron, and countless others. The decision was taken to go to Broadway.
With the blessings of the Kuti family, in 2009 the show opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre and with Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett-Smith coming on board as Producers, over the next 15 months, played to half a million people. Celebrities kept coming; Madonna, Denzel Washington, Ben Stiller, Mick Jagger, Sting, Harry Belafonte, Spike Lee (8 times!) Kofi Annan and Michelle Obama, to name but a few. The show received 11 Tony nominations and three Tony Awards for Best Choreography, Best Costumes and Best Sound. In 2010, whilst still on Broadway, a second company was formed to present a sold-out season of performances at London's prestigious Royal National Theatre.
Since its 15 month Tony Award-winning run on Broadway, audiences in their many hundreds of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic, including a triumphal series of performances in Fela's beloved Lagos, have risen to their feet in admiration of the play's ethos and execution. We would be surprised if you would not do the same.