Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Fela (1938-1997) devoted his life and career to speaking truth to power, not through violence (he left that to the authorities he challenged), but with music and civic involvement–and the 2009 musical conceived by Bill T. Jones (also co-bookwriter and Tony Award winner for his original choreography), Jim Lewis (co-bookwriter), and Stephen Hendel takes the viewer deep inside the man's experiences. The format uses Fela's performances at his venue, the Afrika Shrine, and his own songs to tell the story.
According to the theater, this production of Fela! is the first in the U.S. since the show's post-Broadway tour, which launched at Washington's Sidney Harman Hall in 2011. Olney is presenting the musical in partnership with Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland.
Director Lili-Anne Brown skillfully brings together a large, talented cast and a sprawling storyline with clarity and a strong awareness of both Fela's message and his effect on the surrounding population. He is not superhuman, but he understands the responsibility of representing people who have no other voice. Breon Arzell's choreography helps immensely, using bodily movement to literalize Fela's message of freedom from oppression.
Duain Richmond gives an incandescent performance as Fela, speaking in 1978 during an imagined final concert in the Shrine. (The venue, part of a larger residential and creative compound Fela named the Kalakuta Republic, was destroyed in a violent attack by Nigerian troops in 1977 in reaction to his critiques.) Supported by a sizable ensemble and 10-member onstage band conducted from the piano by S. Renee Clark, Richmond recounts Fela's creation of the Afrobeat music genre and his insistence that people with a public voice must use it to share the concerns of those unable to speak up. He embodies the struggle.
Through everything, Fela is guided by the example of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (Melody A. Betts), herself an activist who was killed during the attack on the compound. Betts, in a shimmering white robe and head wrap (all of Rueben Echoles' costumes enhance the impact of the story, mostly through a blend of deep, vivid colors and elaborate detailing), watches over Fela at various points, and her death provokes Fela's most personal protest. Arnel Sancianco's scenic design draws the audience into the Shrine, with dramatic lighting design by Sherrice Mojgani and Kelly Colburn's scene-setting projections.
Fela! runs through August 13, 2023, at Olney Theatre Center, Roberts Mainstage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney MD. For tickets and information, please call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.
A co-production with Round House Theatre