If you attend shows at Belk Theater, you often come out on Tryon Street to the raucous roaring of a brass band whose sound drowns out any pleasant memories you have of what youve just experienced.
Except for Monday night.
The band was just as loud and insistent as ever, but the musicians seemed like alley cats yowling in the shadow of a lion.
The national tour of Fela! had just overpowered the audience with thundering dance moves, a powerhouse band, a dazzling light show and the outsized personality of singer Fela Kuti, embodied by the mesmeric Adesola Osakalumi.
To do justice to Felas unique career, youd need a miniseries. The complex life of the inventor of Afrobeat, who became a symbol of the dispossessed people of Nigeria before dying at 58, could never fully fit into a two-hour Broadway show.
Yet Fela! gives us a remarkably compact sample that deals with African jazz-funk, the awakening of a black man to his own power (and, in some sense, powerlessness), political activism and a polygamous relationship with the women he called his queens.
Jim Lewis and director-choreographer Bill T. Jones boil down the first four decades of Felas life, stopping long before his death of AIDS. (Some followers believe that his system, weakened by constant beatings and imprisonment, could no longer fight off disease.)
This is a play about Fela and around Fela. Osakalumi seldom leaves the stage or sits idly by, and his impersonation is exact. His accent may make him hard to understand at times (as Fela was, when he spoke or sang in English), but his passion is always clear. Hes more of a powder keg when he sings than Fela, closer to explosions of joy or rage, and you cant look away.
The two women in his life each get one moment to shine. In the first act, Michelle Williams plays the American firebrand who lit his political consciousness. In the second act, Melanie Marshall has a phantasmagoric posthumous solo as Funmilayo, the mother killed by police who were breaking into Felas home.
Felas songs sometimes lasted half an hour in concert or on disc, putting listeners into a kind of trance state. Marshalls solo comes the closest to doing that, as rain effects and lightning flash across the stage and the stage band whips up a solemn yet soaring groove. That jaw-dropping segment comes near the end; nothing can top it but Felas most potent song: Coffin for Head of State, about his trip with his mothers coffin to shame the authorities responsible for her death.
This may sound somber; it isnt. The anger has fierce energy, and Fela had a joyous (and hilariously scatological) side, too. Jones, best known as a modern dance choreographer, interweaves some of his favorite moves with traditional African dance, and this hybrid pulsates for two whirling hours.