Gelan Lambert was overcome with emotion, awash in the parallels of his Haitian compatriots’ struggle, and those championed by Nigerian musician and human activist Fela Kuti.
Following the January screening of a documentary about the controversial, multiple instrument-playing militant, Lambert was moved to tears as he addressed the audience at the Miramar Cultural Arts Center.
And then he danced.
The Haitian-American, Miami native recalled his personal climb from a working-class family unable to afford the dance lessons that he bartered for — dance lessons that would springboard him from Little Haiti to Miami’s New World School of the Arts to Julliard to Broadway.
Lambert plays J.K., Kuti’s “right hand man,” in the Broadway musical Fela!, a popular show that chronicles the
highlights and complexities of Kuti’s short life.
Fela! plays at the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center in Miami from March 19 – 24 and features former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams, who recently joined the cast.
Williams’ casting adds to the show’s already alluring star power. The show’s producers are Shawn Jay-Z Carter, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.
It has been seen by Madonna, Denzel Washington, Ben Stiller, Mick Jagger, Spike Lee and Michelle Obama, among others. Nominated for 11 Tony awards in 2010, the show won for Best Choreography, Best Costumes and Best Sound.
LIFE OF KUTI
The rousing musical provides a glimpse into the life of Kuti, who died in 1997 from AIDS-related complications at the age of 48.
Kuti’s rise to prominence involved a unique fusion of his Afrobeat music, progressive political views and revolutionary beliefs that dared to challenge Nigeria’s brutal regime. His bold stance prompted frequent confrontations between members of Kalakuta Republic, as his commune was called, and the Nigerian military — the deadliest of which resulted in his elderly mother being thrown to her eventual death from a window.
Kuti responded by parading his mother’s coffin before the government’s barracks in Lagos and the home of the military’s general. He also wrote two protest songs, Coffin for Head of State, and Unknown Soldier, a dig at the government’s claim that Kuti’s commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier.
He compared conditions in Nigeria to apartheid in South Africa, proclaiming Nigeria’s treatment of its citizens far more disgusting since racial oppression was South Africa’s excuse.
Kuti had no tolerance for blacks brutalizing blacks and for the seismic imbalance between the government’s hoarding of wealth while the masses endured abject poverty.
American audiences’ increasing intrigue with Kuti may be fueled by knowledge of his U.S. connection.
During Kuti’s short stay in the U.S. during the late 1960s, he was introduced to and profoundly affected by the Black Panther movement and the organization’s revolutionary power movement.
A man of seeming contradictory morals, the proud polygamist attributed his marital lifestyle to man’s natural tendency toward infidelity.
It is said that his mass marriage in one day to his 27 background singers came in response to the women being called prostitutes.
Many saw his marriage to the women as his attempt to provide them with civil liberties, since Nigerian women had few rights then.
A slender, well-endowed man, Kuti appeared as comfortable performing before thousands clad only in his underwear as he was delivering a show in flashy, Elvis-type get up.
At the Miramar documentary screening, Lambert gave the audience a small taste of what is to come when Fela! hits Miami.
The National Presidential Scholar Award recipient (an award bestowed upon him by former President Bill Clinton) donned his tap shoes for an impromptu solo performance that was at once soulful, inspiring, melancholy and joyful, bringing a very grateful audience to its feet.
*Pictured above is Gelan Lambert.