Fela Kuti, known to some as the inventor of the Afro-jazz beat and to others as the dude with 27 wives, is revered in Nigeria for being outspoken against government corruption. As popular as his principles were his songs, which he performed at his pot-laden, cage-dancing downtown Lagos nightclub the Africa Shrine. Though the original Shrine was leveled by the Nigerian military, the New Africa Shrine, built by the late Fela's children in memoriam, remains in its stead.
It was on this stage last May that Atlanta-trained actor and director Sahr Ngaujah played Fela, just as he had hundreds of times before as the star of FELA!, the touring Broadway musical chronicling the rebel musician's life. But this time, for the first time, Ngaujah was performing before an audience who not only admired Fela, but also knew him, partied with him and loved him.
Though the Nigerian people were "skeptical at first" of a foreigner portraying their beloved symbol of freedom, Ngaujah says performing FELA! at the New Africa Shrine was "magical." The opening scene actually takes place on stage at the original Africa Shrine of the 1970s, with Fela announcing his departure from Lagos after the military has murdered his mother and destroyed his home.
"Now we [were] performing this same piece in the Shrine. In Lagos," Ngaujah says. "So it was like standing between two huge mirrors that were both facing each other. We didn't have to finish a lot of the songs because the audience would just sing along. After we started playing, they said, 'You belong to us!'"
Ngaujah also belongs to Atlanta, his "first home" and the city for which he rejected the Royal Academy once and the Juilliard School twice. When asked if these decisions seemed risky at the time, Ngaujah dismisses the suggestion, crediting his time spent at 7 Stages Theatre with friend and mentor Freddie Hendricks' Youth Ensemble as "the reason why Atlanta was the place to be."
"There are so many voices that have nothing to do with us. They want some money out of your pocket, or they want whatever. Your time, your sex, your energy, whatever. And at the time I was making a decision about what my next step was going to be," says Ngaujah. "I was really working on paying attention to my own voice, listening to what was inside of me as opposed to what people were telling me. It was very difficult to make some of the choices that I made then, but I made them and I'm very happy I did."