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Crowning Effort Out of Africa -- and Crown Heights

August 5, 2010 By:
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The heartfelt hurt that infuses Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's keen cry of power to the people can not be more powerfully felt than the jeremiad that jets from the mouth of Sahr Ngaujah, the Tony Award-nominated actor/artist who portrays "Fela!" on stage.

If his let-my-people-go wail wallops the core of the soul, chills with the power of ice applied to the spine, maybe it's because actor Ngaujah's Nigerian rail against the world is rooted in a place that feels compatible alongside the American-born, Sierra Leone descendant's sense of ancestry..

Could that jeremiad have a Jewish genesis all its own?

He certainly understands the music of the benighted legacy of Jews who have faced persecution while seeking promise through the eons.

"In fact, for a while, I thought I was Jewish," smiles Ngaujah post-performance of his pre-theater days and unorthodox education.

Growing up in Indiana, "I went to Jewish day school from pre-school to 7th grade."

And why would his parents, natives of Sierra Leone, send him there? "Why? Because it was the best school in the area."

Singular Sensation
Now that his geography has shifted with Broadway his newfound turf, Ngaujah -- who takes to the stage as "Fela!" five times a week, with Kevin Mambo sharing the strenuous role at other performances -- has not neglected his early forays into Judaism when "I was the only black person in the school."

A standout student, too,he got into the spirit, experiencing the high of the High Holidays. "I celebrated the Jewish holidays; my friends were Jewish," he recalls.

But his baptism into Judaism didn't mean he would forego his own religion. "I would go to Jewish day school and then on Sunday I went to Baptist church," he recalls.

It all comes together now, as Ngaujah has just performed a nigun -- a wordless Hebrew tune of Chasidic origin -- recorded by Jeremiah Lockwood as part of the Nigun Project about which Lockwood has written. "I am seeking to explore this seminal Jewish music form and remake it for the 21st century."

Ngaujah was number one on the hit parade of collaborators with Lockwood, whose project can be heard on: forward.com.

Turning back to tunes of the times of the Baal Shem Tov may seem a curious fit for a performer such as Ngaujah, whose Broadway legacy these days is in Afrobeat. But the beat goes on for a very specific reason: He has long had an interest in Chasid lifestyles and history, he proclaims.

And, after all, it all hits home. "I live in Crown Heights," he says of the cross-streets of black and Chasidic life in New York, far from the rumbling River Niger that floats his wave-making performance at the Eugene O'Neill Theater. 

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