Lili-Anne Brown’s production Fela!

Lili-Anne Brown’s production Fela!

Photo courtesy of Teresa Castracane.

'Fela!' Director Lili-Anne Brown's Ancestral Pilgrimage To The Stage

We sat down with the Chicago native, Lili-Anne Brown, to discuss the American perspective and the legend that continues to be Fela Kuti.

A theater veteran of note, Chicago-based actor and director Lili-Anne Brown spent decades trying to get the Broadway production of Fela! on to the local stage. One pandemic and theatre closure later, her wish has been fulfilled. This July, Brown revived Kuti’s infamous Afrika Shrine in two of Washington DC regional theaters, Olney Theater Center and Round House Theatre, to bring viewers her interpretation of the life of a man who touched the world.

Brown’s career spans regions, genres, and credits from The Color Purple at The MUNY, the biggest outdoor theater in the U.S., to her run as a local cabaret artist. Almost two decades ago — after traveling to New York to watch her friend and professional heroine Lillias White perform in Fela! on Broadway — Brown set her sights on recreating the show on an intimate level, wanting to refocus the lens on community, rather than Kuti as a star. This burning desire saw the award-winning director face an abundance of hurdles that made her hungrier to see this dream through. “I serve the play,” she told Okayplayer.

As the rules of Broadway go, plays are sold as a package deal. That means that the way an original show was performed and directed when it debuted is the way that it has to be performed and directed forever. Delightfully, the original multi-award-winning Broadway production by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis was independently produced. The production wasn’t ever set up for licensing, meaning one simply needed to “convince [the original producers] that you are worth of doing this show,” as Brown puts it. The director’s desire to originally manifest the production as an immersive experience landed Brown the rights to Fela! when the venue that could pull such a production off closed down. A global pandemic then ensued, and three years later, the latest iteration found a home in Maryland’s Olney Theatre.

With no bedrock to rely on, Brown went on to create a level of intimacy with Kuti that hadn’t been experienced in decades. Creating a show that will penetrate the innermost feelings and desires of the audience is Brown’s modus operandi, as the director shared, “Anytime I would see a Broadway musical back then, I would think, "Wow, I wonder when the rights are going to become available for this to be done regionally so that I can get my hands on it and do something different, do something more intimate, do something on a more local level." Casting Sierre Leoneon actor Duain Richmond, who has played Fela since 2012, offered both the actor and Brown the opportunity to share their own versions of what happened in the musical icons' life. The play is set in 1978, and centers on the late singer’s farewell concert at his notorious Afrika Shrine nightclub in Lagos, Nigeria (The original club burned down in 1977 and in 2000 the New Afrika Shrine was erected in its honor).

Okayplayer sat down with the theater director to discuss the serendipitous experience that brought one of Africa’s most influential figures back to the American stage.

Image courtesy of Lili-Anne Brown. Image courtesy of Lili-Anne Brown.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first learn about Fela Kuti and what piqued your interest in telling his story in this way?

Lili-Anne Brown: My dad used to play Afrobeat when I was a kid. He liked world music and introduced me to a lot of it. NPR had an Afrobeat segment every week and he would always listen to it. When I graduated from college, he took me to West Africa. I didn't get to go to Nigeria, but I grew up knowing it was important and really enjoying the music. And then you sort of grow into your taste as an adult – I didn't really think about it, it's just something I knew. And then when the musical came out on Broadway, I was like, "Oh my God, there's a Fela Kuti musical.” When I saw it, it really stuck with me from that moment, I just thought it was so electric. And there was so much money. There's Will and Jada [Smith] and all these people who poured all this money into it, and it's a Broadway musical, it's this big, splashy thing with all of this technology. My background is very lo-fi, and grassroots, and usually when I see large shows, the first thing I think is, “How can I do this on a more intimate level?”

When I saw Fela! on Broadway, my immediate thought was, "What if I could get my hands on this musical someday and actually stage it like we're in the Shrine? Exactly like we're in the Shrine. Nothing bigger than that. Just make people feel like they are at the Shrine for real. What would that feel like?" And I chased that thing for years.

What was the process like trying to get a feel for Nigerian culture in order to recreate it on the stage?

You have to involve the actual people. I'm not African, I'm American, and just taking a trip to Africa doesn't mean that you know anything. You have to involve African people in your production. You have to go out of your way to make sure that things are represented authentically, and that's really important. We had an amazing, what is usually referred to as a “cultural consultant” in the theater – Ms. Abi. She came during our rehearsal process and was with us a lot and would explain things. If we were like, "What does this mean? Why do people say it like this? What is this tradition?", she would explain it to us or say, "Nope, your accent is not sounding right. It's like this." There are also Nigerian actors in the show, and Duain is Sierra Leonean, but he did so much personal research. That man really is a super hard worker and wants to get it right. He knows all the Kuti surviving family members, too. He really is invested in getting it right.

Speaking of Duain – He played Fela for years, was that helpful or intimidating when going into it?

That was actually a real challenge. I said, "Duain, you're going to have to literally flush all of that out of your body and start over." And it's hard when you've been doing a show for so long and you know the moves. Actors who do long-running shows work really hard to set that show in their body so that no matter what's going on, whether you're sick, sad, or injured, you could be able to go on and do your show. It's like autopilot in your body. And it was autopilot in his body, in his mouth, in the way he did the moves. And I was like, "I'm so sorry buddy, we're not doing any of that. We're going to start over.”

I knew it was an amazing opportunity because he was not the original actor who played it on Broadway, but yet he had to do that track. Duain had never gotten to do his version – this was going to be his Fela. And man, that guy, I can't say enough good things about him because he was so game, really up for the challenge and has such a positive attitude and even was training his understudy and was so generous about it. It was really lovely to see.

Lili-Anne Brown\u2019s production Fela! Lili-Anne Brown’s production Fela! Photo courtesy of Teresa Castracane.

Were there any concerns with telling an African story to American audiences, from an American perspective, even though you had the community around you?

Always. You're always concerned about that. “Am I the right person to be telling this story? Are we the right people to be telling this story? Who is our audience and what are we saying?” You just have to be as committed as you can be to the source. And the source that we have is Fela's music and every word he ever said and everything he ever did, and that's it. I am not trying to put my whatever on it, "I'm a director. Let me put in my message or point of view," or whatever. That's not me as a director in general, I'm about interrogating and drilling in and trying to say, "What is this play?" I serve the play.

I’m wondering, “If you come to see the show, what can I do, as a director, to make it transformational for you?" And those decisions are all about how does it look, how does it sound, how does it feel directing your eye? Directors really direct emotions. If I can, "This song is a love song, we're going to get the lights dim and focus them in and make you feel like you're in a very small room and you're watching something very private." That's what directors really, to me, that's what my job is. And then as well as spending time with actors and giving them a cohesive base to operate from so that they can do their jobs. Basically, literally, just helping them get out of their own way. I try to be, in many ways, the most neutral storyteller, or to me, it's like how do you make sure that it's from the right perspective? Get out of the way and let Fela tell it. That's how.

You have told so many different stories on so many different stages. What have you learned this time around? What was new with this experience?

I immediately got emotional because this experience was ancestral in a way that I didn't see coming. And God, it just really let us know that we were doing something right. None of us expected it, but we would just have these experiences. Once, we were rehearsing something and we had our drummer in the room, somehow he was drumming and people were just singing, not any songs, just improvising. And then the music director, she played a couple of chords on the piano and somehow this all morphed into Total Praise. And then they just all sang, just completely spontaneously, Total Praise together. And we were like, "What just happened?" There was this African moment that morphed into this very Black American, religious, spiritual moment. And there were other times when church would happen out of Fela's music. And we could feel the spiritual connection, and we’d say, "The ancestors just jumped out." These spontaneous moments would happen and everybody would get really emotional. We were just like, "I don't know what's happening, but something is being tapped." And that was really powerful for everybody.