FELA! A Pounding Dance & Song Production Set to an Afrobeat

Art Attack also talked with actress Paulette Ivory, who plays the Black Panther member who radicalized Fela.

In FELA!, the story of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician who became a civic activist, Melanie Marshall, who plays Fela's mother, Funmilayo, spends most of the play as a ghost. "I only appear onstage five times; you hear me backstage a lot." Although her picture stays onstage when she's not there.

The musical dance production -- a three-time Tony Award winner -- arrives at Jones Hall this week thanks to the Society for the Performing Arts and stars actor Sahr Ngaujah as Fela, a part he has been doing for more than six years now.

When Marshall graduated from college, she thought, "I was going to be doing concerts and a little bit of opera." But after auditioning for Carmen Jones, she got hooked on musical theater, and a tour of duty with Porgy and Bess only cemented that feeling.

A friend from New York called her and said she should look into FELA! "At first I thought he said 'Othello,'" she recalls, laughing. She looked at a clip on Youtube and was sold on doing the show in the first five minutes, "even though I didn't see my part yet."

Because of his activism, worldwide recognition of Fela's music was slow in getting out. The government preferred to stop it at its borders. But still, he did attract fans all over the place.

"Before I got in this show, I'd never heard of Fela," Marshall says. "I meet so many people now who were part of his life."

"Fela's music is still as vibrant, exciting and intoxicating now as it was back then," Marshall says. "Close your eyes and it could be now." Open them and you'll see everybody dressing in '70s style.

FELA!, presented by the Society for the Performing Arts, will run June 5-10 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For tickets, call 713-227-4772 or go to the Society for the Performing Arts Web site.

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