Actor forges friendship with Black Panther through role in Fela!



A fascinating hour in African and African American history visits the Twin Cities with the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit Fela! coming to St. Paul’s Ordway theater.

In 1969 Nigerian musician-composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, visiting the U.S., encountered Sandra Smith of the Black Panther Party. Smith’s (today her last name is Isadore) fiery commitment to flying in the face of social and political oppression so inspired Kuti that on returning home, he fostered the genre Afrobeat, a fusion of African and American styles that, most significantly, incorporated political commentary. Not an altogether uncharacteristic development since Kuti was cousin to Nobel laureate writer Wole Soyinka.

Kuti’s name is also linked to two other iconic figures: horn player Hugh Masekela, with whom he studied, and Tony Allen who was his drummer for two decades and of whom he stated, “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.”

In 1986, Fela Kuti played Giants Stadium in New Jersey as part of the Amnesty International “A Conspiracy of Hope” concert on a bill with, among other luminaries, Carlos Santana, Sting and Bono of the band U2. Three years later came anti-apartheid album Beasts of No Nation with its cover depicting U.S. President Ronald Reagan, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and South African Prime Minister P. W. Botha.

Portraying Sandra Smith is accomplished performer Paulette Ivory ( whose track record includes creating the role of Nala in The Lion King (London) and touring the U.S. in Aida for which she was nominated the Helen Hayes Award for best lead actress. The Los Angeles-based, British-born star also has appeared on American television in Girlfriends, The Young and Restless and The Doctors and on the BBC in the long-running hit EastEnders.

On the big screen she was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Lords of Dogtown and Danielle Steel’s The Ring. She wrote, co-produced and starred in the recently completed film short In Destiny’s Hands.

Paulette Ivory (PI) spoke with the MSR by telephone, reflecting on her craft and career.

MSR: How did you come to Fela!?

PI: Pipa Ailion, the casting director who was casting the London production, [had cast] me in The Lion King. A friend of mine had seen Fela! on Broadway, called me in L.A. and [said,] “I’ve just seen a role that has your name on it.” So I emailed and said, “I’m interested.” They set up an audition in New York and kind of the rest was history. It was quick as that.

MSR: You play a Black Panther.

PI: I sure do. How’s that one for the books?

MSR: How was the research?

PI: Pretty intense, and actually now [I] am friends with the real Sandra Isadore. Some of the stories she had to tell me are pretty deep. It was fun to play someone so fearless, a different direction for me. Usually I’m the romantic lead, being all sexy and whatever. Sandra’s sexy, but earthy. Well educated, an intelligent woman on a mission. She was militant, very aggressive, fighting hard for the cause of that time.

She told me about one incident where she was at a rally and a police officer in the front line was calling them names, being quite verbally abusive. So, she went while he was tackling somebody else and kicked him in his behind and ran off. Unfortunately, he’d already seen who she was. It took a little [while], but they tracked her down and found her and threw her in jail for a couple of days. That’s pretty fearless. I’d never think of doing something like that.

And that’s just one of the stories she has. She was constantly right there in the mix of the fight. It’s great to play this character, this woman.

MSR: Right. Your point is, this time out you’re not playing chocolate cheesecake.

PI: No, we can put that in the fridge. We can eat that tomorrow.

MSR: How was it doing Girlfriends with Tracey Ellis Ross and the rest of them?

PI: Awesome. That’s what I moved to L.A. for, to do more projects like that. To work for very strong Black women on a major TV show. It was really, really enjoyable.

MSR: Is this your first trip to the Twin Cities?

PI: I think it is, actually. For Aida we toured for a year and a half. But, it’s my first time coming there.

MSR: How do you like running all over the country for a living? Tough job, I guess, but somebody’s got to do it.

PI: There are many blessings. I see more places than a lot of Americans get to see — the African American museums, the galleries. It’s life-changing [to get to] do that. At the same time, living out of a suitcase is not the easiest life. It’s hard to eat well. Different challenges [are] mixed in with the blessing.


Fela!, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones with book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones and music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, runs at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts June 12-17. For more information, see “This week’s entertainment spotlights” in our online entertainment section. 

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.