Sahr Ngaujah fills Fela's shoes at Curran Theatre

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Sahr Ngaujah plays the title character of “Fela!” opening at the Curran Theatre this week. (Courtesy photo)
Sahr Ngaujah plays the title character of “Fela!” opening at the Curran Theatre this week. (Courtesy photo)
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There’s nothing like a three-time Tony Award winning musical about a civil rights titan who used his distinctly original brand of big-band music to fight against injustice to usher in inspiration during the holidays.

That would be “Fela!,” which opens at the Curran Theatre on Tuesday. The show — which won 2010 Tonys for best choreography, costume design and sound design — captures the spirit of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, whose biting, often sarcastic, music was used as a tool to speak out against actions of the military regimes in his native Nigeria.

Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith came on board as producers when the show hit Broadway in 2009. Tony winner Bill T. Jones directed and choreographed. It’s been a resounding success ever since. But it’s

Sahr Ngaujah who generates buzz, taking on the commanding role of Fela in performances that are both physically and creatively demanding.

While the Tony nominee gushes that the experience has been “very rewarding,” it remains very challenging work.

“But as challenging as it has been, which is one of the reasons why I’ve wanted to do it, I really do love it,” he says. “I never tire.”

That’s hard to imagine. In the show Ngaujah’s energy must remain high. He must radiate Fela’s relentless joy and passion, both vocally and physically through intense choreographed movements.  

Of the extremes he reaches on stage as Fela, Nguajah says that the experience has affected “many aspects” of his life.

Playing a rabble-rouser will do that. Fela paid a high price for his courage to speak out against opposing forces that led to 200 arrests and countless beatings that left scars over much of his body. He died in 1997 of AIDS, although insiders suggested his death was a result of too many beatings.

Balancing these intricacies onstage is no easy feat. Even Nguajah admits that having played the iconoclast for some time now, he can’t help but walk away having discovered new insights about himself.

“I’m understanding more about my capacity to give to others,” he says. “From the standpoint of my energy — emotional, spiritual energy — to give to so many people every night in the most honest way I can is something that I keep learning.”

 

IF YOU GO

Fela!

Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays; closes Dec. 11
Tickets: $31 to $100
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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