Just two years ago, Sheri Crawley decided to ask God what her purpose was, and where she should begin. After retiring from the corporate world, Crawley wanted to use her business knowledge for a purpose-driven venture. Soon, her questions would be answered with the Pretty Brown Girl Movement, an organization focused on the empowerment of little brown girls all over the world by reminding them they are beautiful, inside and out, through workshops and mentoring panels. Little did Crawley know, this idea that popped into her head during a conversation with her husband and daughter, would launch into a life changing movement for little brown girls in the world.
EBONY: Why did you choose to deem your organization the Pretty Brown Girl Movement?
Sheri Crowley: For some reason “brown” is an easier term for all of us to embrace because we are so many different shades. Kids understand “brown” because it’s a color. It’s a different feeling, and there’s so many of us of different ethnicities that fall under “brown.” We all have our individual things we’re going through relating to skin tone. But we haven’t had a platform specifically designated for the discussion as it relates to skin tone and self-esteem with little “brown” girls.
EBONY: I love that you say “brown” isn’t exclusive to Black women, because it isn’t. Women of all cultures really do battle with complexion issues. But I think that color complexion with Black women is more in the forefront.
SC: Yes, I mean it’s all of us [of ethnic decent]. An Indian young lady who was your age approached me, and she was making a documentary calledShadism. I was just floored by the fact that the Indian culture also has a color issue. From how to “pass,” to face creams, to the commercials they run on television. They battle this too. Here we might be the minority, but globally? Not at all.
EBONY: Can you tell our readers the journey that led you to the Pretty Brown Girl Movement?
SC: It’s an interesting story. Our initial goal was just to empower our own daughters, so we created Leila, our Pretty Brown Girl doll, named after one of our daughters. We saw our daughter going through situations at school in regard to her skin tone after we moved from Chicago to a suburb of Detroit, where the population is only 1% African-American. So she went from living in downtown, diverse Chicago and always having African-Americans in her class to being less connected to kids of color. I could see her self-esteem start to dwindle almost instantaneously.
I remember I was taking out a group of girls for one of my daughter’s birthday parties to American Girl Place, and they all had a chance to pick their dolls off the wall, and every single one of them picked a White doll.
EBONY: Do you think those little girls hadn’t been taught enough that they are beautiful?
SC: They learned about their history. They knew about Harriet Tubman, they knew Rosa Parks; they know their stories. We taught them their history, and we did everything as parents that we think we could do. But still, when asked to choose on their own, they all chose the White doll. I was standing there like, “What’s wrong with the pretty brown girl doll?”
That summer, Anderson Cooper was running the doll test documentary, showing the five part series of the test that was originally done in 1942. The test went something like this: “Which one is the ugly one?” “Black.” “Which one is the pretty one?” “White.” “Which one is the smart one?” “White.” “Which one is the dumb one?” “Black.” And then, “Which one looks like you?” And hesitantly having to go back to all those things you said about it. I was crying so hard.
At the same time in my life, I was praying for God to show me my purpose. I retired from corporate America when I was 27. I’ve been an entrepreneur for years and had my own businesses and I wanted to know how I could really use my gifts and talents and skills to really impact others.
EBONY: Where did you come up with the name Pretty Brown Girl?
SC: My husband always calls our daughters “pretty brown girls.” That’s just what he calls them, how he greets them. In one of our conversations, it just clicked. I was just like: Pretty Brown Girl! I ran to the computer and looked up the domain to see if it was available. I couldn’t believe it was. We were appalled that it wasn’t taken. My husband said I should buy it. For the first time, I listened to him and the next day, someone tried to buy it from me! So we formed an LLC and created the Pretty Brown Girl doll.
EBONY: It’s crazy how things can really happen when you truly believe
By Michael H. Margolin
When was the last time you saw a Broadway hit in Detroit with the original lead? Maybe Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly?” This time around, The Music Hall has scored a coup: not only the marvelous Broadway/London show, but the star of those productions, Sahr Ngaujah.
“Fela!” celebrates the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a Nigerian activist and musical innovator. In the performance of the gifted Ngaujah, he is immortalized for those of us who are, now, aware of AfroBeat, which he popularized, some might say, memorialized, in the 1970s.
The show takes place in Fela’s night club in Lagos, Nigeria, the Africa Shrine Nightclub, where Ngaujah takes center stage for most of the two hour running time. He sings, dances, plays trumpet and saxophone and, in the second act, shirtless, shows the impeccable pecs and upper arms of a modern day Greek god.
He is, unto himself, a legend, and if Fela was half as dynamic, he is well represented. (Fela last played Detroit in 1991; he died in 1997.)
Set in 1970, the show, co-written with panache by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, moves into the past to show some of the experiences that affected Fela: He was an activist, writing songs that skewered corrupt generals and their governments, that held the colonialists and neo-colonialists’ feet to the lyrical fire, setting aflame radicalism in its listeners.
This show, then, is a celebration, not only of one man’s starry life, but of his courage in facing oppression in his country and dragging AfroBeat music to the world and into world music. His mother’s death was the result of his outspoken songs, and at the end of Act II, a brilliant scene distills the events of the raid on his enclave by goons in Army uniform and the graphic deaths of some of his followers – at times drawing gasps from the audience.
This was the event, some four years before the time of the show’s setting, when Funmilayo, Fela’s mother, was thrown from a second floor window to her death.
One of the small miracles of Bill T. Jone’s direction is how he keeps the show on an entertainment track, not letting it get preachy, but still making the point about heroes of the black movement, in Africa and here, in our country. Jones, himself an innovative choreographer with a social viewpoint, made a wise decision in choreographing (with associate, Maija Garcia.)
This show could exist as a dance work, with the sensational torque of hip and torso and the intricate footwork in opposition to swaying bodies. AfroBeat inspires dance, as it is a blend of African music, elements of jazz and funk, and features chants, call-and-response and complex rhythms.
But, wait, there is more.
The set is wondrous, the lighting outranks any rainbow you will see, and the generous use of projections on scrims outside of the proscenium and along the upper half of the rear wall carry the audience into the presentation (as do the spotlights sometimes shining into the crowd.) The magicians who accomplished this are Marina Draghici, Robert Wierzel and Peter Nigrini, with a fine sound design by Robert Kaplowitz. (In 2010, the show took three Tonys for choreography, costume and sound, and was nominated for a total of 11.)
In the supporting cast, the wondrous Melanie Marshall – also from the original cast – sings Funmilayo. Marshall’s voice is heavenly, reaching up and up in her second act song set on the stairway to heaven.
Other performers of note are Paulette Ivory (a sensuous Sandra), the outstanding Ismael Kouyate as the character of the same name, Gelan Lambert as the Tap Dancer and Egungun, and Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green as Iljembe-‘Mustafa.’ The ensemble is sensational, and the 10-piece band that plays upstage produces some extraordinary music.
The songs are forceful, direct, rhythmic, mostly by Fela himself. My one reservation is that only some of the song lyrics are projected onto the rear scrim, and with their polyglot lyrics are hard to understand.
One thing that is not hard to understand: why we should honor this man and thank conceivers Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel as the driving forces that brought this show and the history of AfroBeat to the stage with the help of Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and Ruth and Stephen Hendel who produced.
SHOW DETAILS: “Fela!” continues at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, 350 Madison St., Detroit, Tuesday-Friday through March 4. Tickets: $30-100. For information: 313-887-8501 or www.musichall.org.
– See more at: http://www.encoremichigan.com/article.html?article=5737#sthash.j1sLnKun.dpuf
By Bill Hirschman
Fela! is stunning in both senses of the adjective: exhilarating to the point of paralyzing the observer with elation and overwhelming to the point of numbing the observer.
Powered – and we do mean powered – by a supremely talented cast of singers/dancers/musicians executing thrilling choreography and song, the national tour settling for one week at the Arsht Center doesn’t just immerse the audience in the riches of African culture, it floods you until you fear you might drown.
This fusion of dance recital, musical revue, performance art, stand up comedy, political monologue, everything but traditional theater, focuses on the life of Fela Anikulap-Kuti, inhabited here with indefatigable charm and energy by Adesola Osakalumi. The Nigerian musician turned social activist opposed his corrupt government during the 1970s by writing and performing excoriating protest songs while developing the fresh genre of music, Afrobeat.
Many audience members will be propelled into ecstasy by this theatrical rocket fuel; others will rebel at the unrelenting sense of “too much.” One good friend who saw the show in New York hated it, saying that after you saw the first 30 minutes, the show wore out its welcome. Certainly, the overkill will wear out all but the most fervent audience member eventually. But until then, what a ride!
The show highlights Fela in 1978 when the government’s murder of his mother has him considering closing his club Afrika Shrine and leaving the ravaged country. In this “last” performance, Fela spiels witty political patter between performances of his infectious percussive music which marries tribal rhythms, American jazz, psychedelic rock and a half-dozen other influences. Most of these songs are autobiographical, enabling the company to illustrate key points in the arc of his life through musical flashbacks.
But as the evening evolves and Fela’s outrage grows at the atrocities, his broad smile is replaced by a smoldering glare. He seeks a sign that his dead mother gives her blessing for Fela to leave the country and the cause. In a flabbergasting coup of stylized stagecraft, Fela journeys into the land of the dead to consult his mother. This pull-out-all-the-stops hallucinogenic fever dream culminates in his mother instilling in Fela the will to continue their work as she sings a heart-stopping aria.
The shining soul of the show is Osakalumi’s central portrait of a charismatic artist who merged his music with political activism. But the two real stars of the show are the source music (mostly by Fela, orchestrated/arranged by Aaron Johnson) and avant-garde directorial vision of Bill T. Jones who won the 2010 Tony Award for his kinetic choreography.
The music blends disparate elements such as djembe drums from the villages, horn sections straight out of Motown, Cuban conga drums, funkadelic bass and gleefully impudent anti-social lyrics which range from poetic metaphor to scatological jibes. Through it all runs pulsating sexuality. Two of Fela’s international renowned numbers, “Zombie” and Originality/Yellow Fever” are offered here with long, almost hypnotic licks.
In a perfect synergy with the sound, Jones has created a dance vocabulary from a dozen disciplines as eclectic as the music. His lithe and muscular corps swivels their hips, pop their shoulders and stoop/strut like kings of the barnyard. Jones imagines human beings can throw themselves into the air and while aloft pivot their bodies at the waist with their limbs flying in different directions like the tendrils of a jellyfish.
The tall and slender Osakalumi (who relieved the show’s original star in Broadway) exudes an engaging jocular persona even as he is describing the oppression in his country. He has no trouble seducing an uptight audience into participating in call-and-response chants, standing and even swaying to the music. It’s exhausting just watching him, which is why the role is sometimes filled by Duain Richmond.
Yet the most memorable performance comes from a veteran of the British production, Melanie Marshall, as the formidable spirit of Fela’s mother. In the first act, she mostly sings from a second-story catwalk lit from behind, with her mellow sweet voice somehow disconnected from a person. But when Fela journeys to the afterlife to ask her blessing on his retreat, Marshall sits atop a tall metal staircase, cradling Fela’s head against her knees, and issuing forth music that rivals the bright white light she is bathed in. The song “Rain” – one of the few in the show not by Fela –exhorts Fela to persevere despite her death. The way she caresses the words, the way her voice soars in and around the melody scores as one of the most affecting moments in any Broadway Across America tour entry in either Miami or Broward in a few years. She was miked and her voice was pumped out of speakers at a decibel level that likely could be heard on South Beach. But the purity of her sound, her range, her agility, was the equal of anything I heard on the same stage by the Florida Grand Opera this season.
If you see the advertising for the show, you might think Fela was being played by Michelle Williams, a member of the R&B girl group Destiny’s Child. But, in fact, she appears 45 minutes into the show as a black power activist who raised Fela’s consciousness during an extended stay in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Williams does have legit credits replacing other performers in Broadway shows like The Color Purple and Chicago, so she is perfectly adequate in the part, although it could have been done as well if not better by many other actresses.
In a cast in which each member of the ensemble seems to have a distinct personality, two members stand out. Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green whose energetic and exuberant playing of the djembe (the waist high drum played like a bongo) does not restrict him to on-stage band and often finds him center stage cavorting with the dancers. Recognition is also due featured dancer Gelan Lambert who specialized in ultra-percussive tap dancing in the style of Savion Glover who is coming to the Arsht this spring.,
The 10-piece multi-ethnic band is as fine as any singer or dancer on stage, dead solid with an inexhaustible drive. Among the superb group, sax players Morgan Price and Alex Harding “dub” Osakalumi’s playing of Fela’s saxophone; they burn up the stage so completely that they could be prosecuted for arson.
Jones and the show’s co-creators Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel have a consistent vision that extends to their creative team. Marina Draghici’s costumes are a rainbow of styles and vibrant colors. Her setting of the Shrine club with corrugated metal walls surrounded by a second story catwalk is adorned by Peter Nigrini’s projections of Fela’s lyrics, news articles, video clips of strife and hallucinogenic images for the journey through the land of the dead.
Coordinated with costumes and setting is Robert Wierzel’s nimble lighting design. Among his techniques is to put people in silhouette, an especially effective tactic when dancing soldiers goosestep across the catwalk. I’d bet, though, several score of audience members would appreciate not having spotlights shined in their face, even if that has several nice metaphorical resonances.
Fela has a few failings besides sensory overload. While 85 to 90 percent of the words spoken and sung are in English, perhaps half are intelligible. Osakalumi has a lilting voice whose rhythms and intonations are lovely music itself. But his heavy accent obscures the specific words he’s saying, especially when he gets emotional either from joy or anger. Fortunately, many of his song lyrics are projected on the back wall of the set like opera super-titles.
One last observation: The opening crowd was one of the most diverse that a Broadway Across America show has attracted in recent years and the average age was about two decades younger than usual. Along with some family-oriented fare, Felaunderscores how Broadway Across America is aggressively reaching out to families and to diverse, younger audiences with an eye for patrons who will still be interested in coming five or ten years from now. If that doesn’t enchant the white senior citizens who formed the backbone of their subscriptions base for decades, well, then, apparently, so be it.
Cases in point: Next season, The Arsht will feature the lovely folk musical Once, the impressive War Horse and the time-tested but acerbic Evita. But it will sprinkle the season with a revue based on the music of glam rockers Queen, plus a return of Blue Man Group and for the kids, an adaptation of the movie Elf. The Fort Lauderdale tours will include the supremely irreverent The Book of Mormon, the rock musical based on Green Day’s album American Idiot, the birth of rock n’ roll musical Memphis , with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new spin on The Wizard of Oz for the family trade andChicago for a title that audiences have heard of. Not a 1950’s or 1960’s classic in the bunch for the blue-haired set.
Fela! runs through Sunday at the Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Running time 2 ½ hours with intermission. Tickets are $26-$86. Call (305) 949-6672 or visit www.arshtcenter.org.
To see a lengthy promotional video, click here.
Fela! boasts hit songs, thrilling dances and a riveting story. But this Broadway success, which runs through Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center, is also radically different from other musicals. The show, which opened Tuesday evening, brings us inside the seething, incandescent and precarious life of the Nigerian musical and political revolutionary Fela Anikulapo Kuti. That it succeeds in captivating American audiences with a world that would seem to be utterly foreign and disturbing to them… read more
published Friday, May 10, 2013
Sure, it may be about a man who constantly challenged the authority of the repressive military government of Nigeria in the 1970s. But it’s also about how he created his own musical style called Afrobeat by combining his musical influences from traditional African rhythms to jazz and Frank Sinatra, thereby becoming the hottest name on the continent.
Fela Anikuklapo-Kuti was an activist but he was also an entertainer. Book writers Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis zero in on this, never letting the character move too far from either as he tries to decide which label defines him more. Fortunately for us, the result is a narrator who is able to remain affable even while relating the struggles of his life and country. In the Zen world of musical theater, he is carrot and stick. Sounds impossible, but he’s not the only one combining roles.
Bill T. Jones is the choreographer and the director/co-creator. Having firmly achieved legend status in the world of dance, he has moved into the Broadway sphere, winning Tonys in choreography for Spring Awakening as well as Fela! (for which he was nominated for direction, too). Also combining roles is Marina Draghici, who won a Tony for these costumes but was also nominated for the set she designed here as well. Though the set is as much a combination as anything else with equal ingredients lighting from designer Robert Wierzel (nominated for a Tony) and projections from Peter Nigrini that change the walls as easy as changing costumes. Somehow the roles are blurred but the edges stay sharp, like a Russian doll in a kaleidoscope…with a beat.
The secret to the production at the Winspear, however, is the actor who portrays the activist-ertainer: Adesola Osakalumi and his ability to combine the extremes so fluidly. He’s the ambassador to the world of Fela as well as the character. Osakalumi has all the talents necessary for a Broadway star: singing, dancing, acting, but none are employed to such effectiveness in this role as his sidelong glance and snow-white smirk. They are exactly what’s needed to set the audience at ease. To give you an example of the power of his charm, he got the audience of middle-aged Lexus Broadway Series ticket holders to get on their feet and work on their pelvis gyrations.
As for the story of the show, it roughly takes place after Fela has achieved his fame, traveled the world and returned to set up a nightclub/compound in Lagos, but is told almost like a self-narrated A&E biography complete with of clips, pictures and news clippings. He breaks down the influences of his music and then turns around and does the same for his politics, including the effect of Sandra Isadore, a member of the Black Panthers played by the statuesque Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child fame.
It’s a one-man show amidst a dance piece with a really good band. The only place where it gets a little dicey is in the second act when Fela goes to the underworld to communicate with his mother. For a minute, it’s like losing the one person we knew at an intense party that is starting to spiral out of control.
When we get him back, it is at the feet of his mother, Funmilayo, played by the amazing Melanie Marshall. In the first act she whets our appetite at the end of one appearance by holding a note with such delicate firmness that all action stops allowing her to regally cross the stage and exit. Even after exiting, everyone listens to the last drops of vibration. If you had to endure a trip to the underworld, this is what you would be hoping to make it all worth it. Marshall doesn’t disappoint with a song that clearly explains what Fela must do.
It seems strange to leave the dancing to a late paragraph in a review of a Bill T. Jones piece, but at this point quality is just a given. The setting is Fela’s club in Lagos, The Shrine. So, most of the dancing fits that context, mixing club dancing with some traditional African forms. Underneath all of it is a celebration of the human body. It’s a world of sexual display, combing prowess and prowling but never forgetting the humor inherent in the endeavor. At one point, Fela marries all of his female dancers. He divorced them the same way.
No review would be complete without mentioning the djembe beat provided by Rasaan-Elijah “Talu” Green, as well as Ismael Kouyate’s singing. Just as Michelle Williams bears the mark of pop and Melanie Marshall of opera, Kouyate’s high-trilling voice cuts its own swath through the music. At the end of the show he breaks into a benediction of sorts that completes the journey. It is an appropriate topper to an evening of showing off.
There are quibbles concerning Adesola’s miming of Fela’s saxophone playing and the lack of an encore, but if all the gripes can be summed up with “put down the sax and add a dance,” you’re in for a good time.