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AS FELA! COMES TO LONDON WE SPEAK TO THE LITTLE KNOWN BLACK BRITISH ACTRESS

 

By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

 

Thursday, November 11, 2010.

 

Already a Tony Award-winning sensation after its Broadway run, the London episode of the musical biography of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, is set to have the same impact on audiences and critics at the National Theatre.

 

When he was alive, Fela gave us a potent cocktail of Pan-Africanism, militant demands and multilayered and polyrhythmic beats wrapped up in a fusion of West African highlife music and Afrobeats. In death, Fela - who died over 10 years ago - is revered as much for his musical innovation as for his political standpoint.

 

As with many musical icons the back story is equally intriguing – family, friends and musical collaborators of Fela are just as important to the formation of this multi-instrumentalist legend.  

 

The story of Fela is a story of Pan-Africanism, and Sandra Isadore (previously known as Sandra Smith) is part of this legend. Isadore was a Black Panther Party activist and companion of Fela during Fela’s 1960s sojourn in the United States. It is no surprise that Isadore is acknowledged as one of two women (the other being his Mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti) who most influenced the musical and political evolution which generated such powerful music. 

 

The prototype strong Black woman that is Isadore is thus credited with introducing the musician to the United States Black Power Movement, to Malcolm X and other Black writers and leaders. The message certainly got through because from that period onward, revolutionary lyrics ran right through Fela's music, and incendiary contents fuelled courageous confrontations with the political authorities in Fela’s homeland of Nigeria.

 

The portrayal of Isadore - this influential and little heard of figure falls to British born, America-based actress and singer Paulette Ivory (in rehearsal in main picture). The London-born performer may not be as well known in her birthplace as she is in the United States, but she has paid her dues on both sides of the Atlantic.  She brought Nala to life in The Lion King, took the lead role in the US tour of Elton John’s Aida, and has proved her versatile skills with singing gigs and acting roles.  Now based in Los Angeles, she recently wrapped up a 15 minute short movie - ‘In Destiny’s Hands’ that’ she wrote and co-produced with her husband.

 

Joining a mostly UK-based cast for the London run, I spoke with Ivory during a welcome lunch break as rehearsals intensify for the London production. “The show’s in great shape; we just want to get on the stage now and have an audience,” she tells me.

 

With her experiences on the West End stage and from touring the United States, the thirty-something Ivory recognises the different ways audiences react on either side of the Atlantic; and knows a good show when she sees one. 

 

“A US audience is very vocal - if they are enjoying it they are going to let you know.  In London people keep quiet; I am really hoping they’re more vocal; it is not an inhibited show by any means - you have to be free and vocalise and get up and dance if you want to dance; it is going to be that kind of show!”

 

Before being endorsed by the likes of current Executive Producers Shawn ‘JayZ’ Carter, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, the production cuts its teeth off-Broadway in New York, where it continues. Refining and sharpening up its rough edges led to awards and acclaim (for costume design, choreography and sound design). Stardom has followed for leading man Sahr Ngaujah, who recreates the title role in London – with Rolan Bell  (The Harder They Come) alternating as Fela. Having seen the show in New York, Paulette cannot quite identify what is it exactly that has been bringing in the crowd and draws on her own London history to describe it.

 

“It reminds me of when I used to love going to Notting Hill Carnival. You get to feel and be part of it; the cast comes out into the audience and they are around you. It is very honest and liberating at the same time to who Fela was - they don’t gloss over it. I think people really appreciate that.”

 

Yes, Fela’s popularity has been on the rise since his death, but for many hardcore fans, his music and influence have never really left the stage, especially with his sons Seun and Femi, continuing the legacy in their own right, and in their own unique styles.

 

Paulette Ivory is definitely in the new-to-the-story camp though, revealing that before being introduced to the New York show, she didn’t know much about Fela. Since getting the part of Sandra (Isadore) she’s become a fan of the music and the man, and has utmost respect for the character she plays.

 

“She was a very political, aggressive, strong woman. He became much more militant after meeting Sandra. He said if a woman can do that and fight for her people imagine what I can do for Nigeria.  So he went back [to Nigeria] with a new sense of energy and power.  I love that I am playing somebody so powerful and influential in his life.”

 

Ivory has worked hard to get to where she is; developing the lead role of Nala in the long running The Lion King, from it’s beginning on the London stage, and touring the United States in another Disney vehicle – Aida. Before that, she was in other West End musicals and has even tasted number one success in the Japanese musical charts. On the other side of the pond in America, her profile has developed even further with roles in ever popular US soap The Young and The Restless.

 

“It is one of those shows that everybody sees. It is like a Coronation Street; I actually really like [that] because literally you are handed the script... you look through you it, you mark through it - and then you are filming it, it is a different discipline with theatre [where] there is so much [more] preparation time”.

 

As Sandra in Fela! she gets the chance to showcase her singing and acting talents; and in the future we may see less singing:  I really wanted to get into the acting - I feel there is more that I haven’t explored; I enjoy them equally but there is so much more to come from me in acting,” she says.

 

Fela!

The National Theatre

London SE1

from 6 November

Box office: 020-7452 3000

 

Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

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