As I walked into the Eugene O' Neil Theater from the cold rainy New York day after staying out until 4AM (as you do in NYC) I was transported straight to Lagos by the band (Antibalas, an Afrobeat band out of Brooklyn) already on stage playing Fela songs. I knew this was going to be a unique theater experience and was not disappointed! The entire show continued with the same energy of the horns, the deep pulsing bass player, the catchy Afrobeats, and the magnetic dancing that began as you walked in and didn't stop until you ended up back outside still dancing to the beat.
The theater was transformed into something straight out of Lagos complete with African masks, art, posters of Fela, and graffiti designed to look like the "Shrine" in Nigeria where Fela used to perform. The costumes are equally awe inspiring and help to make the transformation complete. The lead character of Fela (Sahr Ngaujah) encouraged audience participation through asking the audience to say "Yea Yea", teaching the audience to practice your "clock" (telling time with your hips), and joking with the audience members. This was not a show that you sit back and watch quietly. Sahr was the ideal Fela complete with perfect Nigerian-sounding accent, mannerisms, and on top of it all, an incredibly talented saxophone player and singer!
The show was part nightclub (the Shrine), part crazy dance choreography, part Afrofunk concert, and part touching, inspiring and even heartbreaking story. It takes you through Fela's life and discovery of musical tastes, his meeting of a woman that led to his political awakening, his return to Lagos and how he became an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government through his songs. I won't ruin the ending, but you can only imagine what the government thought of people in the streets singing about the corruption of the system and the crooks in government.
Another high point of the show is Fela's mother Funmilayo (played by Lillias White). When she first came on stage and sings with the beautiful heavenly voice she has it gave me goosebumps.