From Lagos to LA, Sahr Ngaujah Plays Fela!

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The cast of "Fela!"

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. The late Afrobeat legend and political activist is famous through much of the world, but he spent most of his life in or near Lagos, Nigeria. So it was an “amazing” experience when Fela!, the Broadway show about him, played Lagos last April, according to its American-born star Sahr Ngaujah.

“The people received us in the best way. They told us we couldn’t leave,” says Ngaujah, who had scored one of Fela!‘s 11 Tony nominations in 2010, for best leading actor in a musical. “His family came out every night. His former band members came around. We also played at the Afrika Shrine, the club modeled after Fela’s old club, (now) run by his children.”

Fela! lands in Los Angeles tonight, at the Ahmanson Theatre, during its tour of the U.S. and Canada. It has also played in Europe.

The New York production took home three Tonys in 2010 — for choreography, costumes and sound. Bill T. Jones (a previous Tony winner for Spring Awakening) choreographed and directed Fela!, which, according to reviews, combines theater and dance in a way not seen too often on stage. Ngaujah’s Fela prompts the audience to sing and dance along with the ensemble, and the dancers spill into the aisles. It’s no wonder Ngaujah advises ticketholders to “bring your dancing shoes.”

Sahr Ngaujah

Ngaujah (pronounced en-GOW-jah) has been attached to Fela! since its Off-Broadway debut in 2008. And that’s not counting the development process of the show. Stepping into Fela’s footprints has been a long and challenging road for Ngaujah, one that has taught him a great deal.

“It really helped me to appreciate people more than ever,” he says. “It’s important for there to be a connection between the ensemble, those on stage delivering the spectacle, and the people watching. We like to have a rapport that’s not just about you watching what we’re doing, but about participating, and the quality of participation has the potential to heighten the experience. So when I’m coming before between 1,000 and 4,000 people any night, what I’m also engaged in is the collective pulse of this group…All of these individuals in this room, they all create one energy field, and it’s different every night, a different village of individual sparks…It has given me appreciation for the idea that the evolution of one is the evolution of all.”

Ngaujah is the son of a father from Sierra Leone and an American mother. “I have been acting for 20 years and directing for 16, 17,”  he says. He became involved in theater at Tri-Cities Visual and Performing Arts High School in East Point, Georgia, near Atlanta. He studied with the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, a hub for international theater. As an adult, he lived in Holland for eight years, directing theater at DasArts.

He studied dance as well as theater, soaking up instruction in classical, modern, African, and hip-hop, and while he didn’t stick with his formal training after school, he admits to taking classes here and there. Working with the multi-award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones has presented Ngaujah with a new set of challenges. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

Catherine Foster, Sahr Ngaujah and Nicole de Weever in the Broadway production of "Fela!";Photo by Monique Carboni

“It’s a really enjoyable experience,” says Ngaujah about the collaboration with Jones. “There were tasks or assignments that I would get from Bill during the creation process, and there were a number of tasks that I gave to myself during the creation process of this piece. One of the things that I really wanted to do was to make this particular work one that would challenge me, give me a nice spectrum of challenges to really push a lot of my abilities and my focus as far as I could, and that’s what I demanded of myself, and what Bill demanded of me.” That kind of attitude also was required by the responsibility of stepping into “the enormous shoes of Fela,” he adds.

Ngaujah calls himself a process-oriented artist, and explains that it’s in the process, collaborating with immense talent, where the magic happens. “Creating challenges for yourself, things that you can push through to find something new. Jones, he’s a very brilliant artist, working with him, where do we start”¦.”

It’s hard for Ngaujah to speak about Jones without seeming overwhelmed. He says that Jones once told him, “Sahr, we’re just ordinary people taking an extraordinary journey,” but then Ngaujah quickly adds, “He said a lot of things.” He mulls over memories, trying to come up with a favorite moment or poignant lesson learned.

“It is an emotional process, working with Bill T. Jones,” Ngaujah shares. “He has a way to tap into the feeling and energy in the room and use that to create a movement, any kind of movement with one body or eight bodies, and it’s very intense.”

Sahr Ngaujah and the Broadway cast of "Fela!"; Photo by Monique Carboni

Ngaujah also acknowledges the good fortune of having a producing team that includes Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith. Jay-Z “has been really good for us because of Jay-Z’s fan base and his profile. His energy really helps attract people to the project that may not have really considered it, may not have realized that, here is something that is right up your alley. Sometimes you need a signpost to help guide you that way.”

A lifelong fan of hip-hop, Ngaujah listened to all kinds of music growing up. “From my mom it was gospel. From my father, African,” he says. “When it came to hip-hop, that evolved over time as I grew and learned more about the world and myself and music. There were different artists who became more or less interesting to me for different reasons.”

Ngaujah makes a connection between Fela Kuti and hip-hop that goes beyond Jay-Z and Afrobeat’s influence on the art. Fela projects “the types of images that a lot of people think about when they consider rappers, the type of energy, the type of charisma that a lot of people try to capture through their marketing…Fela looks like an image of how a lot of rappers would like to see themselves. The difference with Fela, compared to these rappers that we see in the media, is that one of his greatest motivations was social, political, that would have a greater effect for more people that were at a disadvantage.”

Paulette Ivory and Sahr Ngaujah

Which brings us to why the story of Fela Kuti is so important today, and why it has been so well received around the world. “Here we have a guy who lived in a country with a very oppressive regime, a country that had just become post-colonial,” Ngaujah starts. “From one perspective, there was a real identity being born, and this was happening in different parts of Africa during that period with the countries taking back their own role from colonial powers.

“Here’s this artist, he sees inside of his country that there is injustice going on in terms of the natural resources. We have multinational companies coming to take these resources, and what they’re giving in return is not of equal value, so the people are suffering. We have mismanagement of funds in government and major corruption in government, and so he decided to say something about it, and in so doing he ended up being beaten and jailed over 200 times. His mom was killed as a result of injuries inflicted upon her by military personnel.

“In a nutshell, what do we have? One man speaking to power on behalf of many others and getting his body broken as a result, and using his art to do it.”

And, he adds, Fela’s story has “echoes in America right now  — what people are doing on the steps of local city parks, in front of city hall and financial institutions all over the world. It relates on many different levels. I think the most important thing has to do with human spirit, having courage to face one’s fears. We all need political motivation. What we are offering with our story is the highlight of having the courage to face your fears. If people have that, you can see a lot of things improved.”

Fela!, presented by Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Opens tonight. Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 1 pm and 6:30 pm, plus Mon., Dec 19, at 8 pm. and Thursdays, Jan 5 and 19 at 2 p.m.  No 8 pm performance on Saturday, Dec 24. Dark on Sunday, Dec 25. No 6:30 pm performance on  Jan 8 and 22.Through Jan. 22. Tickets: $25-120. Visit the box office, www.centertheatregroup.org or call 213-972-4400.

***All Fela! production photos by Tristram Kenton except where noted

Most recently, Jessica Koslow was the editor of Campus Circle, an L.A.-based weekly newspaper, for four years. Before returning to her hometown, she lived in New York City, working as an editor while also freelancing for various newspapers, magazines and online publications. She received her B.A. from Brown University and is currently pursuing a master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Jessica Koslow

Jessica Koslow