Activist, musician, composer and visionary — Nigeria's Fela Kuti was many things to many different people.
Now, years after his death in 1997, the celebration of his life continues with the Boston stop of the Tony and Olivier nominated production of "Fela!" at Boston's Cutler Majestic Theatre.
The show tells the story of Kuti's life and pioneering contributions to music. He was the creator of Afrobeat, a music that mixed jazz, funk and African rhythms. His songs openly attacked the Nigerian government and its policies, which he saw as oppressive.
The show stars Olivier and Tony Award-nominated actor Sahr Ngaujah as the title character and British actress Melanie Marshall as his mother, Funmilayo.
"It has been the most fabulous experience," said Marshall, who joined the show after auditioning in 2010.
The production received its world premiere Off-Broadway in September 2008, and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, before transferring to Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre in November 2009 where its accolades included three 2010 Tony Awards, including one for Bill T. Jones for best choreography.
"It's my best role to date," said Marshall, a Royal College of music graduate, who's done shows all over London's West End. "I get to play a real person, as opposed to a character. And I get to sing a fabulous, iconic aria in the second half."
Marshall said she was honored to play Funmilayo, who was a also a political activist in Nigeria.
"She was so influential, so strong, such a feminist," said Marshall. "She was the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria."
In "Fela!" Funmilayo is a ghost — she died after being thrown from a second story window by government forces.
Because the story and music is so moving, Marshall said it's struck a chord all over the world with audiences.
"A lot of his (Kuti's) messages are about the rich versus the poor, the struggles of ordinary men against huge corporations," Marshall said. "It's all still very relevant to what is happening in the world today."
Marshall also think's the musical's message of courage in the face of adversity also resonates with audiences.
"He was tortured 200 times, and 200 times he got up," she said of Kuti. "He could have been a rich man. He could have taken the world music stage by storm. He stayed in Nigeria, to be a guiding light for his people."
After seeing the show, Marshall hopes that people come away with a greater understanding of who Kuti was and the impact his life has.
"If you want to do something, there is nothing that can stop you," she said. "At some point, you will achieve it."
If you go
When: Through May 6
Where: Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston
How much: $23.50 -$123.50, tickets available at Paramount Center box office (559 Washington St., Boston's Theatre District ArtsEmerson.org or 617-824-8000.
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