On Thursday evening, Nov. 18, Mrs. Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States of America attended "Fela!" the Tony-award winning hit musical, directed by Bill T. Jones, currently running at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street in New York City. The stunned theatre-goers at the celebrated show, produced by Steve and Ruth Hendell, Sean "Jay Z" Carter, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, could not believe their eyes when they realized who was also going to experience the evening's show about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the legendary Nigerian musician, founder of the Afrobeat genre, and a staunch African political activist. Here are a few commentaries of the auspicious occasion by several members of the "Fela!" company.
Stephen Hendel, Lead Producer, "Fela!"
Stephen Hendel, the lead producer, set up the scenario of the First Lady's arrival, "The band (Antibalis) was just about done playing the overture and all of a sudden, a 10-15 person group comes down the aisles to get to their seats. She was with six friends, so there were seven of them, and there was probably two or three security people at the beginning (of the procession) and two or three security people at the end of the seven. So there's about fifteen people all of a sudden going down the aisles. When she was about a third of the way down, the people suddenly realized what was going on and there was an immediate response from the audience. It was so exciting."
Hendel then constructed the back story giving us a peak of the occurrences leading up to Mrs. Obama's visit, "About 10 days ago someone contacted me and said there was a possibility that she would attend on that day, and who should the security people be in touch with to sort everything out if that actually became a possibility. Eventually I was contacted by someone, and a couple of days later I had to turn it over to the theatre, as it became clearer that she definitely wanted to come to the play. So the Secret Service and the security personnel got involved to learn more about the environment of the theatre and the show to make sure she was protected."
Elaborating further upon the intricate details of logistics for the First Lady, Hendel revealed, "Before she came, the Secret Service and certainly the advance team had been to the theatre and seen one of two of the shows, so they knew what would be good seats for her, and they knew how the cast comes into the audience and performs, so they could figure out how that all worked and where she should come in and where she should go during intermission, and how to get her back to her seat after intermission, and how to get her out of the theatre after the show was over, so it was very carefully planned."
Commenting about Mrs. Obama's response to "Fela!" Hendel revealed, "She came with some friends... they were all women friends of hers... She seemed to love the show and she was very gracious." In fact, Mrs. Obama confirmed this when she met Hendel, who shared, "Ruthie (Ruth Hendel) and I met her during intermission and she told us how much she loved the show and the band, she was really gracious with the cast," he said. "In that scene she was standing and clapping - you know as part of the standing ovation. And each cast member as they went through the aisles, she spoke to each cast member, and hugged them. She spent a lot of time with Patti LaBelle (who plays Fela's mother, Funmilayo) who she knows. She spent high quality time with Kevin Mambo (the star of "Fela!") and she was hugging the cast and smiling and talking to the cast and she stayed until the last cast member went by so that she was able to greet every single performer and then she left the theatre."