Theater Review - Who’s that familiar Fela?

The musical Fela! returns with another Atlantan in the lead

It almost seems like Duain Richmond was destined to play the role of Fela Kuti in the Tony Award-winning musical based on the life of the Nigerian musician, activist, and father of Afrobeat. Besides being a native of neighboring Sierra Leone, who moved to College Park with his parents at age 10, Richmond is a cousin of Sahr Ngaujah, the originator of the role on Broadway. Both actors are also alumni of the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta (YEA), where Richmond starred at 19 in the company’s heralded production Soweto! about the 1976 youth uprising in apartheid-era South Africa. Though he’d been away from the stage for four or five years while pursuing a film career in Los Angeles that earned him roles in Stomp the Yard and Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls, his on-screen prospects paled in comparison to touring in the role of a lifetime. “I couldn’t say no to it,” he says, despite having just two and a half weeks to learn the role after Ngaujah departed to star in the ABC series “Last Resort” last year. But based on the accolades Richmond’s received from the likes of Laurence Fishburne, he’s already proven himself the chosen one.

How do you think being a native of West Africa has impacted your ability to access and embody the spirit of Fela?

Well, growing up in an African home, my parents were big fans of the music so I grew up hearing the music in the household. But I never knew about Fela, the man himself and the political activist. So when the show was brought to my attention, at the time Sahr Ngaujah, my cousin, was doing the role, and he had been telling me, “I’m doing this play, I won’t be doing it much longer because eventually I’m going to be moving on to other things but you’d be perfect for this role, man. You can embody Fela more than anybody else who has done it because you have the body type of the man. Not only that, you can move and sing like him.”

Are there any parallels you were able to draw between Fela’s communal lifestyle at Kalakuta Republic, the compound where he lived and recorded, and the years you spent enmeshed in YEA under Freddie Hendricks, which felt like such a familial theatre collective at its height in the late ’90s?

Everyone who knows Freddie and knows the style of Freddie Hendricks’ teaching knows YEA was like Kalakuta Republic laughs. There was a lot of love there, but there was also a lot of discipline. We were trained to come into our first show and treat the theater as the shrine, because if you have respect for the theater then you have respect for your art. And Freddie Hendricks, one of the things that he instilled in me — and in many of the people who went on to do great things — is that respect for your craft, that discipline to know that when you’re in a space and you’re here to work you treat it like something sacred. So I think Freddie’s preparation was very much like Fela’s Kalakuta because he was very passionate and Fela was a passionate person in everything that he did.

What do you think it says about the legacy of YEA that two of its alumni have portrayed Fela in this iconic role, along with Saycon Sengbloh, who originated the role of Sandra Isadore, his lover and mentor, in the musical? Is it coincidence or more?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are all able to walk in the path of a great show like Fela! and many other great shows, because Saycon is now going to be doing Motown the Musical on Broadway. I think that there is that special touch that we have been blessed with, and it’s good guidance. Many friends that I used to hang out with growing up in College Park, some of them are dead, some of them are doing life in prison for murder. So it was that discipline that Freddie put in us that said there’s more to you than letting your life go to waste. And it was that that kept us coming back and knowing we can be great. The teaching that we received and the love that we were given has definitely propelled us to the different levels that we are going to go to. And it’s only just the beginning, you know.

I saw the footage online when Laurence Fishburne came to Fela! on Broadway last year and you recognized him on stage.

Oh man, yeah, that was one of the most memorable experiences for me because Larry is one of those actors that I look up to. I used to watch all of his movies, and just always studied the man as an actor. When they told me during the intermission that he was in the audience, I couldn’t wait to finish the show so I could recognize him. And one of the greatest experiences that you didn’t see after I introduced him was I went on the lip of the stage and threw my two fists up in the air, and he stood up and did the same thing and he saluted me. It was unreal, man. And to have him come backstage and say those little but powerful words — if you look at the video you see my eyes are all big and I’m like, “Yo, this is not real right now.” It’s Orpheus, dude. I felt like Neo.