Most of us know Michelle Williams from the female pop group Destiny’s Child, and though she is still singing she’s performing on a different type of stage: Broadway. The famed singer has joined the cast of Fela, an African influenced musical produced by Jay-Z, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Questlove, and Ruth and Stephen Hendel. Most recently the play made a stop in Los Angeles at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, where it will run from April 25th through May 5th.
Drawing influences from Afrobeat music and Nigeria’s rich history, the outstanding nationally acclaimed musical paints a portrait of the life of the prolific revolutionary, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. The Sentinel caught up with Michelle Williams for an inside perspective on this must-see production .
Sentinel: Many people know you from Destiny’s Child, but you’re now starring in Fela. Can you tell us a little bit about the play and your role in it?
MW: The play is about Fela Kuti, an amazing musician, writer, and human rights activist born in Nigeria. I’m honored to be in the show. I learned about him about five years ago and have been a fan ever since. It really seamlessly tells about his life and all of the struggles that he went through to make sure that people in his country had the basic necessities, like making sure that they were clothed and fed; he was just a brilliant man. I play the role of Sandra Isadore. It was a lot of pressure. Sandra Isadore is still fabulous and living in Los Angeles. The preparation included us going to lunch together, talking on the phone, a lot of Googling and YouTubing to get facts and everything. I got to actually look at authentic pictures of her and Fela.
When Fela first visited the United States she [Isadore] went to go see him perform and the night of the show they hung out. They had a lot in common and became great friends. They did kind of have a love relationship, but she really helped him to politicize his views. And she told him “Man there is so much going on in Nigeria from what you’re telling me! Put all of your anger into your music and let that be your weapon.”
Sentinel: Since you are his love interest, do you have a love scene in the play?
MW: A song that we sing together is meant to simulate that. It’s a song called Lover, and it’s supposed to tell you pretty much the three steps of the relationship. It was through her that his music changed and that he became the pioneer of Afrobeat music.
Sentinel: How do you describe Afrobeat music?
MW: I’ve heard people say you combine Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and James Brown all into one person. I’m telling you they couldn’t be more correct. It definitely takes the soul of the drumming of African music, and then it puts some big bands in there because you have the horn, then add some Latin and I mean it just gets into your soul.
LAS: Do you prefer acting over singing now?
MW: It’s crazy because right now I’m blessed to do both. This is my fourth Broadway show. Acting is definitely an amazing form of expression, and I really adore it and feel blessed to have the opportunity to do it.
LAS: How did you transition into theater from singing? Was it an easy one?
MW: For me it was. I’m used to kind of being thrown into situations. I wasn’t thrown into Destiny’s Child, but you know I grew up in church. All I knew was how to do a two step, rock back and forth, hold a mic, and sing God’s praises. I didn’t know anything else. But you never know until you jump out and do something. My first experience [acting] was doing Aida in 2003 on Broadway. I had never had a starring role— not even in a high school play— and can you believe my first starring big role was on Broadway? It was great, and some of the best teaching I had ever had.
LAS: Do you still keep in touch with Beyonce’s family?
MW: Absolutely all the time. That is never going to change.
LAS: How closely did you work with JayZ and Jada Pinkett Smith?
MW: Because I’m not a part of the original Broadway cast, I did not get a chance to work with them at all because now the show is pretty much on auto pilot; it’s taking care of itself. But I’m still happy that they’ve allowed the use of their name. People that didn’t know about Fela they know Jay Z, so they’re like, ‘Man, because Jay Z is attached to it let me see what this is all about.’ Questlove is also a producer on the show.
LAS: What was the most difficult part about doing the play, and what was the easiest?
MW: In this show there was not a difficult part, which is crazy because I told the producers of the show, ‘Look, each play that I do, I normally have a nervous break down. I don’t know when it’s coming but I’m telling y’all I’m going to have one!’ Because you get information overload. I’m a perfectionist; I pretty much have unrelenting standards, so I might be hard on myself. But I didn’t have one in Fela; maybe I’m growing up a little bit.