Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center strike gold with ‘Fela!’

This revival of the Tony-winning Afrobeat musical brings a legendary performer and activist bursting back to life.

In 2011, a tiny blip emerged that never registered on the radar for most of the music fans in the Baltimore, Maryland, scene. However, thanks to a handful of notable band members with lots of friends—and a thriving network of underground illegal warehouse events—the Baltimore Afrobeat Society pulled off a few of the ragingest parties to ever rage in the Bromo Arts District. These shows were where my love for Afrobeat began, and where I first heard the music of Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti. In 2023, big Afrobeat bands like Antibalas tour the world and enjoy commercial success. But back in 1970 in Lagos, Nigeria, Fela Kuti—a dynamic musical pioneer—was blazing new trails with his high-energy blend of African highlife, funk, soul, and jazz. And he had just returned from a trip to Los Angeles with a fresh passion for social justice, thanks to Malcolm X.

Duain Richmond as Fela Kuti (center) in Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre’s co-production of ‘Fela!’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

As Jimmy Fallon put it, Fela Kuti was “like the James Brown and Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali of Africa, all rolled into one.” Kuti’s leadership, bravado, and towering charisma were essential in bringing the people together at a critical point in Nigeria’s history. The country was suffering long-term consequences of colonization, and a brutal military dictatorship reigned. Fela fought their injustices, and even as the government targeted him repeatedly, he refused to run. Furthermore, he created catchy anthems that the citizens could chant, and served as a leader for them to rally around. But the dream of living happily in Nigeria ended in tragedy when soldiers raided his home. The man really was an amalgamation of iconic personalities—a powerhouse performer, a fierce sociopolitical activist, and a fearless freedom fighter. But he wasn’t perfect—he was a headstrong rule breaker, with some red flags like engaging in polygamy and being an AIDS denialist (he passed from “a mysterious illness” himself in 1997). However, Fela’s music inspired a nation, and his advocacy ignited a generation. And his influence has echoed through time, inspiring new jazz, soul, and funk musicians, and helping usher in modern hip-hop music.

Duain Richmond as Fela Kuti and Shantel Cribbs as Sandra in Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre’s co-production of ‘Fela!’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Enough about Fela. On to the hit musical Fela!, which is all about Fela (with music and lyrics by Fela). This first-ever nonprofit theater production of the show is running through August 13 at Olney Theatre Center, in a co-production with Round House Theatre. It’s been a feat just getting this piece ready for the stage after a decade of languishing, but Fela! is brought to new heights in the hands of Director Lili-Anne Brown (a recent Helen Hayes Award winner), Music Director S. Renee Clark, and Choreographer Breon Arzell. There’s enough mind-and-body-bending action, music, and movement for three musicals. I felt as if I were right back in the front row at The 5th Dimension being sweated on. And their treatment of the piece is beautiful. The book, by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, unfolds with touching, exciting, and somber moments, and connects the songs well. There are also some truly funny vignettes. If you already love Kuti’s music, experiencing this show will be like you were transported back in time to see him play an amazing concert. And if you’re not familiar, you will likely leave with a new love for his music, and possibly a neck ache from nodding your head so much. For interactivity-phobes: the show is light on opt-in immersive elements (actors come into the aisles a few times; they ask you to sing or talk back sometimes; they ask you to stand up and dance once). And if you want to get sweated on, there’s intimate stage-side cabaret seating.

I was definitely jealous of those cabaret seats when I saw the band perched upstage on their platform. Fela! simply could not succeed without the best band, and this amazing crew is one of the driving forces of this production. The ensemble, headed up by Conductor and pianist S. Renee Clark, jammed for almost three hours, pushing out some of the funkiest Afrobeat you can imagine on a stage full of blindingly gorgeous instruments. I wasn’t the only attendee who loved dancing and singing along! Thanks to Lorenzo Sanford, Carroll Dashiell, Joe Herrera, Christopher Steele, Brent Birckhead, Leigh Pilzer, Deante Haggerty-Willis, Dokun Oke, Reginald Payne, and recent hometown Baltimore cast addition, djembe player Themba Mkhatshwa for making my night. And kudos go to Sound Designer Matt Rowe for rocking it out and making all the right tweaks! The experience of hearing this production was just as wonderful as seeing it. I can’t get the beats out of my head, so I’m making a deep dive back into my Afrobeat Spotify stations.

On the topic of dancing and singing, the Ensemble members of Fela! are undeniably top-tier athletes and artists. Jaws were on the floor as we watched a WALL of impossibly enthusiastic synchronized dancers bust their butts for the better part of this production. And they were hitting every note of the absolutely gorgeous vocal arrangements at the same time! Their acting was also on point, with each one having standout moments, thanks to great direction and lovely choreography. You’re amazing, (Dance Captain) Emmanuel Kikoni, Bryan Archibald, Terrence J. Bennett, Simone Brown, Patrick Leonardo Casimir, Jyreika Guest, Bryan Jeffrey, Raquel Jennings, Raven Lorraine, Vaughn Ryan Midder, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Jantanies Thomas, Galen J. Williams, Jalisa Williams, and Kanysha Williams. Every one of you can claim triple-threat status.

Duain Richmond as Fela Kuti with the ensemble in Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre’s co-production of ‘Fela!’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Costume Designer Rueben Echoles is a wonder. Each richly-decorated costume has its own impressive elements, and the stage is positively covered in colorful African textiles and eye-catching shapes. The vibrant makeup, tribal paint, and face appliqués are also exquisite. Love goes out to Lighting Designer Sherrice Mojgani, who gives these acrobatic actors beautifully dappled spots to play in, and sets the bright and dark moods perfectly. We were all truly dazzled. And it is easy to admire Stage Manager Jamie Berry’s work. Each prop and set piece was placed properly, and the run of this extremely complex spectacle of a show was impeccably timed. And Scenic Designer Arnel Sancianco and Projections Designer Kelly Colburn bring so much authenticity and liveliness to this production. I kept looking up and around to find new elements. On a related note, the program for this show actually has an amazing amount of detail and history—thanks to both venues for making sure attendees are educated.

The lead actors are flawlessly cast. When Shantel Cribbs as Sandra struts in with her Grace Jones cheekbones, she grabs the audience by the heart. I’ve seen a lot of actors walk the stage, but this consummate performer knows her angles like no one I’ve ever seen. Each foot and hip and elbow and shoulder is where she wants it to be at any given moment—it’s extraordinary. She’s a scene-stealer during the romantic parts, and it’s completely fine. Even more impressive is the fact that she sells the activist side of Sandra as well. I felt moved by her obvious passion and empathy, and, with her incredible voice, it was easy to believe that Fela would fall at her feet, change himself, and risk anything to be by her side.

Duain Richmond has an advantage coming in, considering his experience playing the lead role, Fela Kuti, on Broadway and in subsequent concert productions. He decidedly brings charm front and center with his interpretation of the global superstar. It’s difficult to play this many emotions within one piece, and he’s effortlessly convincing while portraying all of these moments. His voice and sax-playing are perfect. And he also deserves props for sheer endurance—the stage is full, his costumes are hot, and his part doesn’t stop. He has the look, voice, and magnetism to make this role work for him for a long time, and I hope he gets the opportunity to keep teaching, entertaining, and inspiring audiences as Fela.

Duain Richmond as Fela Kuti and Melody A. Betts as Funmilayo in Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre’s co-production of  ‘Fela!’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

However, the deck became beyond stacked when Melody A. Betts was added to the cast as Funmilayo, Fela’s mother. She is clearly a ringer. I think the entire audience would have stayed if she said she was singing for an extra hour. Attendees were fanning themselves while she evoked Nina Simone with her honey-soaked brassy tones. Then they swooned as she took “Rain” by the reins, and her notes soared high above the clouds. People were weeping. They literally stopped the show to give her a standing ovation, which I have never seen or even heard of in all my years in theater. It’s a good thing that was close to the end of the night, because I don’t know how much more this (mostly) older audience could have actually handled.

Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

EXTENDED: Fela! plays through August 20, 2023, co-presented by Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center performing on the Roberts Mainstage at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Rd, Olney, MD. Tickets ($47–$100) are available at the box office, online, or by calling 301-924-3400.

The program for Fela! is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Olney Theatre Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Olney’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.


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