Skip to main content

Interview with Hettie Vyrine Barnhill - Part of the Cast of Fela! on Broadway

Hettie Vyrine Barnhill ,one of the ensemble players in Fela! took time out from rehearsing both for the show and an upcoming appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Show Live (January 21,) to speak to me about this remarkable production.

It's not often that a Broadway show gets national attention without the star power of a Hugh Jackman, let's say, or without a long run and a touring company or two. But Fela! - which tells the story of Fela Anikulapo- Kuti, a Nigerian singer/multi-instrumentalist/political revolutionary - is a unique show in so many ways, it's really no wonder it's been featured on national TV shows like the Colbert Report after getting rave reviews in the NY Times and other major media outlets, and garnering more than its share of buzz. A uniqueness in approach was apparent to Hettie from the moment she joined rehearsals back in June. (She's pictured to the right in the image above, with Lauren De Veux and Sarh Ngaujah as Fela.)

"The show was already structured," she says, "but flowing like water. It was a new process to everyone." Hettie describes a constantly changing, challenging environment. "I had to learn how to be flexible. I would learn all the material in the classroom, and then take it to rehearsal, and then maybe next week... it would change," she says. "It was changing right up to the previews. Working with Bill T. Jones, he wanted you to be ready to jump right in. He and the band always had a conversation going." She says that watching his mind work via the fluid development process was just one of the great rewards. "He was thinking as a dancer, as a choreographer, and as a director," she explains. "My favourite parts were his talks - seeing his genius." The unusual process also resulted in a strong dynamic. "This was a team effort," she says. "I feel part of a family."

It's a collaborative process that Jones has described in previous interviews, going back to the initial development of the concept itself as an off-Broadway show that ran to packed houses in late 2008. Jones worked with Aaron Johnson, leader of Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, longtime proponents of Fela's Afrobeat style, who knew the music inside out, and Maija Garcia, a movement artist and student of Yoruba culture. Antibalas is now the pit orchestra, and Garcia an integral member of the cast. They looked to bring Kuti's infectiously rhythmic music, Afrobeat - being his own blend of Nigerian highlife and West African jazz, later also influenced by American jazz - to 21st century audiences.

But the effect of the show is not only about bringing Fela's music, which was actually well known in Europe but marginalized in the North American pop music machine, to greater awareness. "It's an important story," Hettie says. "It's needed. We see all the negative things about Africa in the media - AIDS, warfare... There's also beautiful art, beautiful music. There are people from Texas, from the mid-West - where I'm from - who come to see the play, and they leave feeling like they've learned something too. It opens up your mind."

After settling back in Nigeria after travels abroad, Kuti, (whose adopted middle name Anikalupo means "he who carries death in his pouch",) opened up his own nightclub in Lagos, and began a life that has extreme outlines, from his marrying 27 women all at once, (many of them the dancers in his show,) to violent scrapes with authority, and starting his own political party. In 1977, he released an album called Zombie, the title song of which in particular is highly critical of the Nigerian military. In response, the army conducted a raid on his compound, nearly beating him to death, and throwing his mother - political firebrand and feminist revolutionary in her own right, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti - from a window. She died of complications from her injuries in the year that followed.

Jones' staging is set in the Lagos nightclub, Africa Shrine, and takes up Kuti's story around the time of that infamous incident, with Funmilayo (played by Lillias White,) appearing as a spirit. The show combines elements of theatre and live concert in a unique blend that has audience members clapping and dancing along. Shawn Jay-Z Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith joined the production team just before official opening night in November, hopefully giving them the backing for a long run.

Fela's polygamist lifestyle is the easiest target for the judgement of North American audiences. Barnhill plays one of the wives, his Queens, as he called them, and though they have no lines, their roles are indvidual and researched, and far from the passive go-go dancer you might first imagine. "I play one of the original wives who left him and came back," she says. "There was a conscious decision to stay. When the soldiers came, the wives, they were treated horribly by the military. It wasn't easy to stay with Fela. But, they loved him and believed in what he was doing." Fela himself, although he's most often seen as an unrepentant sexist, would describe that mass marriage as an act of solidarity and support with the women who had suffered with him through the raid. "Myself, I don't know that's what I would do.." she laughs, referring to the polygamist lifestyle, "but they were sisters," she insists. "They kept the community going." She studied her character, Omarala, in pictures. "She was tall, strong - a warrior. I think of that when I'm dancing." (Kevin Mambo as Fela in the image above, with his Queens.)

The 1977 raid on his compound was not Fela Kuti's first or last brush with authorities - a reminder to North American audiences, perhaps, that while political activism can be something of a fashion statement here, in many places in the world, it's something you pay for with your life. In a real life coda to the story, Africa Shrine, run in recent years by Fela's eldest son Femi Kuti and other family members, was shut down by government authorities (also not for the first time) in June 2009, over what many assume to be Femi's own political activism. Plus ça change...

Just in time for the musical, Fela's catalogue has been re-released on CD. Check out the musical here, and check out the late great Fela himself here.

"It's been amazing," says Barnhill. "I feel very, very blessed to be a part of this."

Comments

What Else Is Hot This Week?

FACTORY presents World Premiere ACTS OF FAITH November 19 to 28 2020 - Free Livestream

 From a media release: World Premiere FACTORY presents  ACTS OF FAITH by David Yee Directed by Nina Lee Aquino Starring Natasha Mumba November 19 – 28, 2020 @ 7:30PM Streamed live for 6 performances Free of charge TORONTO (October 19, 2020) - To kick off its groundbreaking 2020/21 season, Factory presents the world premiere of acts of faith, by multi-award winning Asian Canadian playwright David Yee, directed by Nina Lee Aquino, and starring Natasha Mumba. Written specifically to be performed for a digital platform, acts of faith will stream live to audiences at home for six performances, November 19-28, 2020.  Thanks to the generous support of the TD Bank Group, admission is being offered entirely free of charge to audiences across the country and beyond. acts of faith tells a story about the power of faith, the inescapable persistence of our online identities, and the nature of truth in a digital age. The story follows Faith, a young woman who gets mistaken for a prophet. When a ques

Blues Single | Bushwick Blooze Band: Waiting (Independent / 20 October 2020)

Blues Single Bushwick Blooze Band: Waiting (Independent / 20 October 2020) Stream It From Your Fave Service Waiting is the latest in a string of singles released by Bushwick Blooze Band. The Brooklyn-based blues trio have been performing and recording the blues around the NYC area since 2018. Their first album "Cryin' for the L Train" was released in January 2019, and included covers of famous songs composed by their greatest influencers such as Little Richard, The Allman Brothers Band, Freddie King, and Eddie Vinson.  Bushwick Blooze Band is finishing up the production of their second album "Yes Dear" and unlike the previous cover record, this new album will be their first original contribution to the genres they love. Waiting is an upbeat blues track with a party kind of veneer over solid musicianship. What begins with a classic blues feel transforms into an extended psychadelic flavoured trip. Inventive guitar licks almost make you forget about the virtuosity

Blaise La Bamba & Kotakoli November 7th 2020 Online - PWYC

 From a media release: Batuki Music Society and Alliance Francaise Toronto present A virtual concert featuring Blaise La Bamba & Kotakoli November 7th 2020 at 8:00 PM Enjoy the concert from home! K inshasa’s vibrant nightlife has long been world-famous. It is home to the subculture known informally as the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People (SAPEUR), which has spread its influence through artists such as Papa Wemba. Blaise La Bamba is part of this scene. He has worked with some of the top names of Congolese music, in particular General Defao. I n 2018, Blaise La Bamba founded Kotakoli , an all-star collective of musicians that perform an energetic mix of Congolese rumba and soukous . In the company of Kotakoli, this veteran musician brings Congolese popular music back to the forefront, with spellbinding dances. The Details Date: Saturday November 7th, 2021  Blaise La Bamba and Kotakoli Virtual Concert Time: 8:00 PM Tickets: Pay what you can This concert is offered to you

CD Release: TriBeCaStan's New Deli Breaks the Time/Space Continuum in New Deli (Feb 7)

From a media release: New Release from Little Known Government of TriBeCaStan : Capital New Deli Found to Have Irregular Time-Space Continuum EverGreene Music - February 7, 2012 TriBeCaStan: News Alert. This morning Aljazzeera reported that the questionable nation of TriBeCaStan ( www.tribecastan.tv ) has made scientific breakthroughs in time travel. The unrecognized republic of nomads has broken the code of the time/space continuum. And by broken we mean: it no longer works. Applying sonic techniques once only known to a small group of punk rock shamans, the nation's most prestigious scientific entity, the TriBeCaStani FolkLorkEstra, uses sound alone to simultaneously place listeners in eras separated by decades and terrains separated by oceans. The breakthrough is outlined in an auditory compendium titled New Deli (distributed by the state-run EverGreene Music, set for release February 7, 2012 ), a recording that allows the world to experience a type of soulful networking mor

Jazzy Pop: Shihori - Soul Trip (Independent / 4 September 2020)

Jazzy Pop: Shihori - Soul Trip (Independent / 4 September 2020) New York City based singer and songwriter Shihori's new single Soul Trip is atmospheric and ambient. Interesting rhythms and interwoven melodic vocal lines showcase jazzy harmonic progressions in a slow groove mode.  As a songwriter, she uses electronic effects with impeccable musical taste. As a singer, her flexible vocals range from a sweet soprano to a strong mid-range. A veteran of the Japanese pop scene, Shihori moved to New York City in 2018, a move she talks about in a media release. "I was so surprised when I came to NY for the first time. Independent and strong women are respected and there are lots of different preferences in music and style. I thought, 'oh my God! This place really accepts uniqueness and freedom! I didn't know there is a place like this totally different world that allows you to be yourself. Everybody looks so different. So many races, colors, cultures, fashion, ideas...I am so