WHAT: NT Live: FELA!
WHERE:Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street
WHEN:Jan. 27 at 7:30 p.m.
COST:$15 for students
Fela Kuti could have exploited his talent beyond any reasonable limit. The creator of the Afrobeat sound and revered political activist was on track to bypass Bono as the most recognized contemporary political musician in the world.
Stephen Hendel, creator of “FELA! on Broadway,” came across Kuti’s music vis-à-vis his personal jazz obsession. The unassuming New Jersey commodities trader instantly adored Kuti’s work and artistic integrity.
“He could have been living a life of great luxury, hanging out with the gods of rock ‘n’ roll,” Hendel said. “But instead of compromising his beliefs, he endured his jail sentence, his solitary confinement and refused to stand down.” Kuti went to prison in 1984 for a trumped-up currency smuggling charge after much criticism of Nigerian, Ghanian and American politicians and militant groups.
The more Hendel read about Kuti and the more music of Kuti’s that Hendel listened to, the more caught up he became in the overwhelming presence and drive of the legendary figure.
“I wanted to create something that told his story with his music,” Hendel said.
Soon afterward, choreographer and director Bill T. Jones agreed to work with Hendel to make his vision a stunning reality.
Though beginning with a modest cast and small-time performances in New York, “FELA!” soon boasted a lineup of Patti Labelle, Saycon Sengbloh and Kevin Mambo.
A shift to Broadway — and a deal with National Theater Live out of London — made the show more accessible, with exponentially more attendees each show. Quickly, FELA! gained attention from the likes of Jay-Z, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, ?uestlove and Spike Lee.
Kuti’s influence on these musicians and others is only solidified through the story told in the production.
“He got out of prison and had more music in his head,” Hendel said. “The lyrics would be about a continued call for human dignity and freedom and emancipation.”
Those worried about the production quality and experience of the NT Live broadcast versus a theater production will not be disappointed, either.
“If you go see this at the Eugene O’Neill on Broadway or the National Theater, you’ll have a thrilling, communal experience, with a more visceral energy,” Hendel said. “But the live broadcast gives you the close-up interaction with the performers that you just wouldn’t get otherwise.”
The production is broadcast by a nine-camera team, so the audiences of NT Live always have the best seat in the house. Known for instigating mass dancing in the aisles, “FELA!” brings euphoric energy to every viewer it encounters. Wear comfortable clothing and don’t forget those dancing shoes.
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