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Danny Groner

Danny Groner

Posted: August 29, 2010 04:18 PM

Broadway shows use a common technique to have the narrator speak directly to the audience to provide both his motivation and necessary background information. In many cases, including in Fela!, it's done in such a way to make the theater's audience a part of the show. While telling the story of the Nigerian musician, the protagonist of the show pretends that we were in his audience at the Afrika Shrine, where he held court. What this allowed was a chance for him to relate to us in such a way that we felt we were inside the story, instead of mere onlookers.

What sets this performance apart from others that feign everything from rock concerts to sit-ins in order to incorporate the theater and audience into the overall ambiance is how much Fela! relies on its narrator to become our leader, our beacon of hope, and our hero for the night. It's so effective because the play calls on its actors who share the lead role - Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo - to narrate pretty much the entire show and thereby escort us on a journey back to the era in focus. Few other characters in the robust cast of dancers deliver lines; and when they do, Fela quickly turns up again to join the song and dance and recapture his spot at the forefront of the play.

After all, it's his story to tell. Still, it's rare to see one character so prominently shine ahead of all other members of the cast. But that's what makes Fela! so powerful - the main character not only details his own story through words, but his singing and dancing give you a real sense of how his performances could inspire packs of people. The line between Fela the historical icon and Fela the present performer is blurred throughout the story. A series of flashbacks complete with choreographed dance sequences contribute to the back story while managing to keep the audience attuned to the protagonist's ongoing developments and revelations. The play spans decades' worth of events and memories in a tightly-packaged and well-conceived narrative.

This play succeeds thanks to Ngaujah's and Mambo's abilities to make Fela so likable. They don't just demonstrate masterful storytelling methods, they make the story truly come alive thanks to careful facial impressions and vivid body language, including how they both frequently move to the front of the stage to acknowledge and bring in members of the first rows of the audience. You get a strong sense of who Fela was, why so many people supported him and his music, and the kind of optimism he imbued in an African national facing turmoil and drama. Yet, as we sit inside the Shrine, we're entertained and taught to ignore the mayhem that is taking place outside the locked doors.