Monday, December 19, 2011

Fela!: A Must-Have Theatrical Experience

I got there late or so I thought. After a long stressful day, I needed an escapism and "Fela!" was exactly what the doctor ordered. Colorful, dramatic, musical, political, even sexy; "Fela" is an experience, not merely a musical performance. Even the scent of it, some incense that permeates the theater, leaves with you.

Presented by Shawn Carter a.k.a Jay-Z, Will & Jada Pinkett Smith, Ruth & Stephen Hendel, and Fela Broadway LLC in association with The National Theatre of Great Britain, "Fela!" is based on the life of famed Nigerian Afrobeat artist and political activist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and inspired by authorized biography, "Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore."It's directed and choreographed by Tony and Obie Award winning artistic director, Bill T. Jones.

Back to the experience...

Rushing through the lobby I see muscled brown skin, tight plaid pants, an elaborate hairstyle, and bright smiles flash ahead of me entering the theater.  Sexy black men always get my attention, but these were not just mere men they were "Fela!" performers, men trained to express themselves through the art of dance. Of course, I followed right behind them toward my seat.

Once seated I finally take a long look at the stage. WOW! There's so much color! Shades of red, green, yellow, blue accost my sight. Beautiful black women and men dance provocatively, some in traditional African costuming and tribal paint. Immediately, I'm mentally transported out of LA and into the famous 70's Nigerian night club, "The Shrine," performance home of Fela Kuti.

By the time the uber-talented Sahr Ngaujah takes the stage as Fela I'm "all in" for a musical journey and much needed history lesson. I say much needed because as an African-American I'd heard of Fela Kuti but not his indelible impact on global music and culture. And I am not alone. If you know Bob Marley then you should know Fela Kuti too.

Ngaujah amazingly introduces us to the man, the artist, and the activist  through one of most energetic performances I've seen in a long time. Not merely an actor playing a musician, Ngaujah passionately plays the saxophone, sings his heart out, dances, and tirelessly connects us with the music that became Kuti's weapon against the corrupt Nigerian government.

The first act introduces Fela's upbringing and musical inspirations and involves audience participation.  As Kuti Ngaujah instructs us to shout "Yeah! Yeah!" and gyrate our hips as if moving hands on a clock. The exercise creates the right atmosphere for Ngaujah to have fun with the audience. He even offers a theater-goer a pull of some weed (probably just tobacco) which the guy eagerly accepts!

Through a fabulously exuberant showcase of song, modern African and tap dance, we journey from the formation of Kuti's first band in London to his introduction to the Black Panther Movement in Los Angeles.  Totally inspired and empowered by the Black Power movement, Kuti returns to his homeland to challenge the powers-that-be.

The second act chronicles Kuti's political movement using his "music as a weapon." Scathing ridicule of Nigerian government and soldiers in songs like "Zombie" result in him being jailed, violently attacked, and his elderly mother being killed. But it doesn't stop him; he further seeks direction from his deceased mother's spirit. Her beautiful operatic yet haunting voice guides and consoles him in his darkest moment.

Overall, "Fela!" is a wonderful theater presentation that should not be missed! For any lover of live performance, dance, and music it's a must-see experience.  And likewise for those who understand the power of music as a means of social change it's an inspiration.  Visit the Ahmanson website for tickets.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Janet Jackson's New Gig: NutriSystem Spokesperson?

Start spreading the news! Janet Jackson is reportedly lending that familiar mega-watt smile and much talked about body to NutriSystem, the food regiment that "offers weight loss programs delivered right to your door." And that convenience is probably one of the reasons the "Pleasure Principle" singer/actress/author/producer chose it. Who has time or desire to wait for a healthy meal when you're entertaining the world on a highly successful 80-something city tour?

Check the January issue of "Shape" Magazine to see Janet give a little more detail on her choice NutriSystem. And be sure to see Janet on "Good Morning America," "The Insider", and "Access Hollywood" this week probably making the big announcement to the world.  I suspect too, based on the pic above with Shaun Robinson, some mention of another book and upcoming film projects--one of which involves music.  That's all I'm going to say for now! 

*Janet voice* Chicka-ahhhhh!


Now here's why Janet Jackson gets much respect here on Hollywood As I Live & Work: She does care about folk and gives BACK!  In fact, thanks to her new partnership with NutriSystem she'll be distributing food to the hungry through a food bank they're calling "Nutribank", according to the "NY Times." Talk about going back to her charitable roots!

In previous interviews, Janet's mentioned feeding the hungry on a smaller scale with Mike as a kid. It appears some things just stick with you, and in this case, that's a really good thing.

For every pound lost by NutriSystem participants, the company is donating $1 worth of food to Nutribank. A whopping $10 million worth has already been donated for 2012.

Now THAT's how you use celebrity! And it wouldn't surprise me at all if the petite philanthropic super star actually delivered some of those meals in person.  By the time some realize she was in their presence, she'll be on to the next one.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Charlayne Woodard's The Night Watcher: Auntie's On Duty

In her newest one woman show, "The Night Watcher," a stage, a chair, and minimal creative accompaniments, is all Obie winning and Tony nominated actress, Charlayne Woodard, needs to poignantly and effectively challenge the notion that every woman needs to have a child of her own to truly fulfill her purpose in life.

Playing currently at the Kirk Douglas Theater, "The Night Watcher," is a fabulous demonstration of the art of storytelling at its best. Pulling from experiences of friends and family trying to tempt and persuade the actress into motherhood, Woodard charmingly introduces us to the various children that have come into her life and how she became their "Auntie".

Through her body and amazing talent she channeled troubled and precocious nieces, nephews, and godchildren as they tell their stories of teenage pregnancy, molestation, race identity, and loneliness.  Each almost always asking her in their unique voice, "Auntie Charlayne, can you keep a secret?" And from that need to confide stems the inspiration behind the show's title.

How she transitions between caring adult to emotional child and back in one conversation is for lack of a better term, schizophrenic--but in a good way. Again, drawing from her well of talents and techniques, the award winning actress delivers emotional scenes between adult and child that relay how important it is for children to have someone in their lives they feel they can talk to.

But most of here scenes are not so heavy, some are quite funny. Explaining to a bratty godchild why "celebrity" Aunt Charlayne drove a Volvo instead of a Porshe was quite humorous. Then introducing the child to her new temporary home--an apartment not the Hollywood mansion she had expected hits home with any audience.

Of course explaining to her frustrated mother why she was buying an expensive coat for a new dog and not a child was LOL funny.  "I'm so disappointed with you and Harris (Woodard's husband)," she says. "The world is full of kids who need some real attention, and you up at the doggie boutique. All the other stars are adopting kids--black kids even! You and Harris on your second white dog."

So if Woodard cares so much about children why is she always Godmother and "Auntie" and never "Mom" nor "Mamma"? Simply, as a self proclaimed "blue-collar" actress she adores her idyllic "dogs-as-children" lifestyle with her husband. Not to mention as the oldest of five, Woodard gained motherhood experience early in life helping to raise own her siblings.

Still, doesn't EVERY woman desire to have kids of their own? No and that's okay. As "The Night Watcher" wonderfully points out, childless women and men have ample opportunities to impact children's lives directly. The role of god-parent, auntie, uncle, friend, and mentor should not be dismissed in their importance. The question is who's willing to really step into those roles when needed so that children don't fall through the cracks? If the picture of all her "kids" are any indication, Charlayne Woodard is doing it and doing it well.

Visit to learn more about the actress and her projects. "The Night Watcher" runs now until Dec.18 at Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City! I HIGHLY recommend it!

Monday, December 05, 2011

From Football to Filmmaking: Matthew Cherry Plays The Game To Win

When a certain name regularly pops up in your Twitter feed take notice. It may not be a spammer, but a tenacious up and coming film director creating major buzz for him or herself and their work. That was the case for former NFL rookie turned film director, Matthew A. Cherry. Thanks to his "e-hustle" and passion for filmmaking he gained my attention and my follow over a year ago on the social platform. Since then his online and offline game has earned much attention in indy filmmaking circles and thousands of engaged followers anticipating his new film, "The Last Fall."

So why is Matthew A. Cherry worth following online and off? Because he's done what many come to Hollywood to do but fail, and that's make it happen!  How else do you explain his major career change from NFL rookie to filmmaker and his self promotion from tv production assistant to film director sans film school and a lot of money?

While on his way to probably Starbucks, his favorite writing spot, I talked with Cherry via cell about his career play book and his newest project, "The Last Fall." It stars a stellar cast including Lance Gross, Nicole Beharie, Keith David, and Vanessa Bell Calloway and is based on Cherry's NFL experiences. Not bad for a Hollywood up and comer, huh? And yeah, he wrote it too!

So take a few minutes and really LISTEN to this interview as scenes and images from "The Last Fall's" production scroll by. You'll learn why and how getting a film done in Hollywood ain't about the traditional studios anymore. Hear too how Cherry has combined the old notion of hard work with new technologies to establish himself and his work as definitely one to follow in the years ahead.

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