Michelle Williams of the sensational R&B trio, Destiny’s Child, struts her stuff in Fela!, the smash Broadway hit, touring nationally and making a stop in Oakland, CA, at the resplendent Paramount Theatre, June 4 through 9.
I spoke to Williams who bursts enthusiastically about her fourth staged musical, the three-time Tony award winning production that tells the triumphant and inspirational tale of courage, passion and love.
Fela! is the true story of Fela Kuti, who created a type of music–Afrobeat, and mixed these pounding eclectic rhythms (a blend of jazz, funk and African rhythm and harmonies) with rousing lyrics that openly attacked the corrupt and oppressive military dictatorships that ruled Nigeria and much of Africa.
Adesola Osakalumi stars in the role of “Fela Kuti” and Williams shines alongside him as “Sandra Isadore,” activist and love interest of Kuti.
“I am thrilled to join the cast of FELA” says Williams. “This musical journey is the one that I’ve wanted to be with since I first saw it on stage. The sounds, the passion and the politics of Fela Kuti have long intrigued me and speak to my heart. I am simply honored.”
Between recording and concert tours, Williams pursues dramatic theater, a passion that has yielded acclaimed results. First, she took the reins of Broadway’s AIDA in 2003 to critical acclaim and audience raves.
In 2007, Williams joined the cast of the Broadway smash, A COLOR PURPLE for its national tour, where she dazzled in the role of Shug Avery.
Giving back to the community is equally important. Williams is also a strong crusader for a number of causes. She is spokesperson for TERI (Training Education & Research Institute) a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life for children and adults with developmental an learning disabilities. She works with the American Heart Association as an ambassador for the American Stroke Association. Recently, Williams became a spokesperson for NVEEE (National Voices for Equality, Education and Enlightenment), an organization focused on preventing bullying, violence and suicide among young people.
During a stop in Seattle, WA, we spoke by phone.
An excerpt from our conversation follows—
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Fela! Is one of the most successful Broadway shows in recent years and the reviews have met with extremely positive feedback.
Williams: Oh absolutely, I mean, it’s unlike any show that I’ve ever been in on Broadway or off Broadway—just the way the story is told. I think people are shocked when they come to see it thinking it will be like other Broadway shows. Then they experience Fela!, and are wowed from beginning to end, singing and dancing, because the show is very interactive.
Talk2SV: The choreography rings true of the genius of Bill T. Jones (TONY Award winning Bay Area native). The story of Fela Kuti is so much to take in; one can’t possibly interpret the whole of his life in one broad stroke. The musical presents a type of visceral experience. As you’ve alluded to, having that participatory involvement with the audience, in some ways, helps one live through his story as you are watching it unfold onstage.
Williams: You’re right which is so exciting about the way the story is told. How do you compress his life into two-and-a-half hours? The music and the dance alone could be a standalone movie or a documentary series on HBO! Fela Kuti’s story needs that kind of exposure. I was brought up in a family of strict, religious, Pentecostal standards so they might not have agreed with Fela’s lifestyle. But I look at his stance on politics, his stand for justice, human rights, and for equality. That’s what looms larger in his legacy.
Talk2SV: Let’s talk about your life. As you’ve said, you come from a devout Christian background yet your numerous career accomplishments are diversified and you’re still a very young woman.
Williams: Yes Ma’am. My favorite scripture is Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge him and he shall direct your path.” My path has been outside the box. My path is to be a light wherever I go. I’m excited about what I’ve done even though sometimes I think I’m not doing much at all. When I do reflect on the accomplishments, I say to myself, ‘God let me stop complaining. You have allowed me to do much.’ When I’m feeling less than accomplished is on those days off from work and I start feeling like a bum … that is really horrible. If I’ve had a week off, I really try to enjoy it with friends but before long, I’m checking emails or doing something work related. My prayer when that happens, ‘OK God, I really need to work on this because I know the worth of my life is not determined by work.’
Talk2SV: I agree. There are so many wonderful passages throughout Proverbs that help us navigate life’s course and help us appreciate the gifts that God gives. How is it that you’ve been able to do what you do, maintain your core identity and individualism yet not become braggadocios? You certainly don’t come across that way.
Williams: I look at the greats like Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett; she came to the show in Los Angeles, then I ran into her at the shopping mall. When you think about it, they don’t walk around with all this security and the big entourages, they don’t believe in celebrity, they just go to work, do their craft and they go home. And that’s just how I like to do things. I was at the beach the other day. I wasn’t really bothered, people recognized me but I kind of like that. My work is something that I love to do, praise God that others recognize me for it, and I have a fan or two here and there. But other than that, I like to do what I do without pomp and circumstance.
I come from the Midwest, Rockford, Illinois, and there are no superstars there. I still like to go to Wal-Mart and Target when I’m there. I like to see what’s on the clearance rack (laughter).
Talk2SV: Oh, I love hearing this!
Williams: Let me tell you something, clearance racks are the first place I go to; then I like to build my outfit around there. Now, I must admit that I am a shoe girl; God really needs to work with me on that (laughter). But I really charge it (my everyday-ness) to my upbringing. Another example is Leonardo di Caprio, he’ll walk around LA and get into a Toyota Prius, a $20-30,000 car.
We (actors and performers) just love what we do. When I go home to Illinois, mom still has me picking up the kids from school. I went to my niece’s 8th grade graduation and I think things like that are what continue to keep me balanced and grounded, in addition, trying not to take things for granted because I won’t be able to do it like this always.
Talk2SV: Speaking of doing it big, this year’s NFL Superbowl halftime show featured Destiny’s Child; you ladies gave a great performance. Listening to you describe the pace of your life, are you planning to start a family?
Williams: I would plan to start a family if I had a ring on this left hand of mine. I would love it (laughter). I would love to be married and maybe have two children, hopefully its twins at first, get two birds with one try, you know. I love family, I desire true Godly love and I know it exists.