According to just about all of the critics, seasoned musical theatre singer-sctress Lillias White is currently delivering a stunning performance in the role of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s mother, Funmilayo, embracing both the Pan-African performance style and the conventions of a traditional Broadway performance that are combined in this eclectic show. Playbill recently ran a lovely interview with the actress who, along with the show itself, should offer some stiff competition to other actresses alongside whom she will surely be nominated come Tony time. Some of the highlights:
Question: Before getting the role and doing this production, did you know much about Fela?
White: I was familiar with his music, and I knew that he had been an activist back in the day, but I did not know about his mother at all.
Question: Did you do much research into the role?
White: There’s a book called For Women and the Nation, and it is about Funmilayo. It is about her life and how she grew up and the things that she did in her lifetime to help the women in Nigeria. I did as much research as I could online. There was not a tremendous amount on her online, but I researched her as much as I could. I read whatever I could get my hands on.
Question: Was there anything that stood out to you as particularly memorable as you were learning about her?
White: Mainly that she was pretty stern. She was a pretty stern, strict mother, which I try to be…. I don’t know how successful I’ve been with that, but anyways… She really loved Fela. She loved his spirit. Some people may even say that he was her favorite of all her children.
Question: In the first song you imitate the vocal sounds of the region. How did you go about getting that sound?
White: Honey, I live in Harlem. We have lots of Africans in Harlem from every part of Africa. Africa’s a very, very big place. Here in Harlem we have people from all over the African Diaspora. So I’m really good at accents, and I’ve been studying the Nigerian accent and different accents all my life, so I just kind of picked it up. I got some help from a Nigerian buddy who was friends with Fela.
Question: The second number is so great and powerful. What’s it like doing that song in the second act every night?
White: It’s pretty intense. There’s a lot of energy that’s created with those moments in that particular part of the show. There’s a lot of prayer going on, prayer to the African god…. There’s chanting going on, there’s a lot of movement going on, and it’s a very intense moment. The energy in the air, where I’m sitting up there, is very intense. It’s not fun and games up there. It’s very serious. I take it very seriously.
The full interview is an interesting read, looking at her audition process, the research she did for the role and her performance in the show, as well as anecdotes about other shows in which White has performed. Use the link above to get there – and enjoy it!