At 76, Noble laureate Wole Soyinka moved faster than the owners of ‘Fela! on Broadway’, when he exited the theater just before his presence was announced, refusing to attend his own surprise birthday celebration.
Soyinka was present to see the show for the first time, a play in honor of the life and challenges of his cousin, who used afrobeat music as a weapon for activism, the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti at the Eugene O’Neil Theatre in midtown New York, the only Broadway show about a Nigerian.
Several Nigerians in New York and the surrounding cities who came to honor the professor exceptionally packed the house that night. They had prepared a big cake well decorated with these words: “Fela on Broadway salutes Wole Soyinka at 76.” The cast was also prepared to sing him a birthday song, but he was long gone.
Just as the cast were taking their bows at the end of the play, the professor made his way to the door despite persuasions by Professor Okey Ndibe, a professor of Literature at Trinity College in Connecticut, and Omoyele Sowore, the publisher of SaharaReporters.com who drove him to and fro the venue to his hotel. He was followed to the car park by a good number of Nigerians who organized the surprised birthday urging him to say a few words to the cast.
“Today I just want to enjoy the play like any normal person. I will come back to see the cast members at my own time,” he said while waiting for Sowore to pull up the car.
He refused to grant any interview as the press thronged after him, saying he wanted the performance to be about Fela, adding that he had to catch an early flight to South Africa.
Nonetheless, the cast members sang a happy birthday song in his absence with the multicolored cake brought on stage. The lead actor, who played Fela, Sahr Ngaujah, a Sierra Leonean, was the one that announced Soyinka’s presence, saying it was a special night for the casts. The audience busted into claps and cheers, but the excitement was soon followed by expressions of disappointed when it was realized that the professor was gone.
Professor Okey Ndibe said Soyinka’s presence was a history-making event at the musical.
“Soyinka and Fela have a shared vision, a shared life of political activism. Like Fela embodied a rebellious spirit that questions authority and wanted more humane treatment in Nigeria, Soyinka also shared that kind of vision,” he said.