Sahr Ngaujah was about 7 the first time he heard a song by Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer, political activist, and multi-wived communard. Not really understanding the words, Ngaujah thought “International Thief Thief” just seemed catchy, but when his father explained that the song’s title referred to ITT, the telecommunications giant, he listened again to Fela’s purring patois (“Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go”) and understood. “This shit sounds so good, but it’s about something, too,” he remembers thinking. “It blew my roof off.”
Pretty much the same thing happened to theatergoers who saw Ngaujah, now 32, star in Fela!—the uncategorizable combination of concert, dance party, and bio-musical masterminded by Bill T. Jones last year Off Broadway. When a revamped version opens at the Eugene O’Neill in November, Ngaujah is likely to get the kind of reaction that hasn’t greeted a Broadway leading man since Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz in 2003. The role is so overwhelming (Fela’s onstage almost without a break, constantly singing, dancing, playing sax), and Ngaujah inhabits its sexiness, narcissism, and musicality so completely, he makes it seem as if he was born for the job. Call him the Boy From Lagos.
But Ngaujah, as he explained over breakfast in the East Village recently, grew up in Indiana and Georgia (where the locals had to learn that his name is pronounced, approximately, Sah n’GOW-ja). His father, a musician from Sierra Leone, met his mother, an American missionary, when she was directing a chorus in Africa. Perhaps because they separated shortly after their son was born in the U.S., Ngaujah never fused these different backgrounds; rather, he experienced them—and soon, the hip-hop culture of his teen coterie—fully and separately. His mother’s home was filled with liturgical music: gospel, hymns, Mahalia Jackson. His father, who became a leading party D.J. in Atlanta, would drive him around in a convertible with the top down, Congolese jazz blasting. By the time Ngaujah and some friends started a rap group at their church, it was clear he was interested more in the clash and interface of styles than in their comfortable melding.
So it should come as no surprise that after spending his youth studying to be an all-around performer, and after early work in TV and film, he peeled off the traditional path of conservatory training and New York cattle calls and spent the next eight years in Europe, performing and eventually directing underground theater. (He also married; his wife, Ayesha, will appear in Eclipsed this fall, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.) Just as his avant-garde work was culminating in a piece called Conversations of Ice—about the African blood-diamond trade—he got the call to audition for Fela! That Jones was able to drag him back from the Netherlands for, of all things, a commercial musical (“I didn’t give a fuck about Broadway,” Ngaujah says) is a testament to the actor’s feeling for the material. Putting it across well is therefore a responsibility he takes seriously, living monkishly (“which is challenging for me”) to preserve his voice and working out like a demon to support the “exhausting job” of “taking Fela’s spirit for that long of a ride.”
Still, his attachment to the role doesn’t attenuate the wanderlust he inherited from his parents. (His mother currently lives in a Kenyan village.) When Fela! ends, he probably won’t be jumping into a revival of, say, Company, though he might be brilliant in one. Imagining what’s coming next—maybe in Tokyo or Berlin—he smiles broadly, and in doing so reveals an endearingly chipped front tooth no Broadway baby would dare leave unbonded.
Eugene O’Neill Theater.
In previews Oct. 19 for a Nov. 23 opening.