Another Night at The Afrika Shrine: FELA! Returns to Chicago

By: Catherine Puttmann

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I cannot even begin to express how amped I was when Sgt. Tibs of Gowhere Hip Hop sent me a text message announcing that Gowhere had acquired tickets to FELA! for the Friday night showing at the Arie Crown Theater. When I saw this musical last April it instantly became my all-time favorite. The music, the fashion, the dancing, and the overall vibe of FELA! instantly transports you to a funky, groovin’ and politically charged Nigeria of the 1970’s where you get to experience the conception of Afrobeat by the one and only Fela Kuti.

Let’s set the scene: it’s just after 8pm last Friday night and I find myself surrounded by Sgt. Tibs and my creative besties, Kellen Winters of music production company Force One Seven and accessory designer extraordinaire Ashley Drapes. The lights dim and it’s time for the audience to be welcomed into Fela’s nightclub, Afrika Shrine, a haven for his crew of passionate dancers and musicians, in which they are putting on a final, 2-set performance before it is destroyed. (If the venue sounds familiar to you Chicagoans that’s because it should. The Shrine that we know and love is a popular Chicago venue that has hosted nearly all of hip-hop’s mainstays in its time, and was aptly named after Fela’s nightclub.) It’s at this point that I have to interject the fact that I wrote a review of last year’s Chicago performance, and admit that the following exposition is primarily taken from said review in an attempt to synthesize my background information concerning FELA!

“Conceived by Bill T. Jones, Steve Handel and Jim Lewis, FELA! premiered on Off-Broadway in NYC in 2008, both directed and choreographed by Jones. The Broadway production opened on November 23, 2009 and ultimately received 11 Tony Award nominations, winning three of them, and even a getting a nod at the Grammys. Furthermore, FELA! received the HOVA stamp of approval when Jay-Z (along with Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith) signed on as a producer for the show’s Broadway run. About his reasons for jumping on board, Jay told MTV News, ‘It’s an inspiration, about the power of music. Here’s a guy that’s on the other side of the world who was influenced by James Brown, who takes this thing and makes his own sort of genre of music. I just think it’s fascinating.’” During an extremely successful tour of the U.S. in 2012, FELA! hit cities such as Washington D.C., Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it had a successful twenty-day run.

This time around the electrically charged musical continued to impress. With Adesola Osakalumi as Fela Kuti, Melanie Marshall as Funmilayo, and *wait for it* Michelle Williams of the Destiny’s Child fame as Sandra, FELA! has quite literally cast a foundation for instantaneous success. Not only do I respect the hell out of Michelle for taking the stage, but damn is she the perfect fit for this musical. In contrast to Fela’s intensity, and in light of Sandra’s own politically incensed character, the soft soulful nature of Michelle’s vocals are integral to the energy and balance of FELA!

The addition of Michelle Williams to the cast was not the only difference in how FELA! hit Chicago this time around. Last April I was fortunate enough to see this show at the Oriental Theatre and honestly the choice of venue this year paled in comparison. The Arie Crown presents several disadvantages for a performance such as this, the first and most obvious of which is its isolated location in the city. Not only did we have to travel all the way to McCormick Place, but also our arrival was subsequently met with the joys of navigating what feels like an empty airport hangar. Secondly and also in contrast to the centrally located Oriental, the Arie Crown is the direct opposite of intimate. It’s a large, sterile venue and although the performance sounded great, the usual interactiveness of FELA! fell short in such an environment. Suffice it to say that I’m sure those catching the musical for the first time were impressed, however as my second experience I felt cheated by the vibes of the Arie Crown, reduced to a mere member of the audience instead of a visitor to the infamous Afrika Shrine.

All comparing and contrasting aside, FELA! still maintains its spot as my favorite musical. It is a performance made phenomenal by its controversial and historical roots, breathtaking costume and set design, and of course the extremely talented performers. Although it begun touring in late January, FELA! will continue to show all over the U.S. until early June where it wraps up in Seattle, so do yourself a favor and find a way to see this musical (complete list of tour dates here).

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