Tony Award Winning Fela! the musical returns to Chicago and this time Destiny's Child's Michelle Williams is along for the ride.
Produced by Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Jada Pinkett Smith, Fela! follows the life of Nigerian singer Fela Kuti, who battled AIDS and government soldiers while performing at a nightclub called The Shrine in Lagos. Bill T. Jones wrote the book and choreographed the show that was nominated for eleven Tony Awards the year it debuted Off-Broadway.
Singer and Illinois native Michelle Williams plays Sandra Isadore, Kuti's lover.
After conquering the charts in the trio Destiny's Child she released two gospel recordings, collaborating with Shirley Caesar on one track. She moved into the dance realm with the album Unexpected, and the song "We Break the Dawn" became a club hit.
Her musical background continues to grow after appearing in Aida and The Color Purple for its national tour.
Williams took on television as an HIV-positive executive on the UPN sitcom Half & Half and also appeared on Fox's Celebrity Duets.
We talked to the independent woman before her arrival for Fela!
Windy City Times: Hey, Michelle. You have had a busy week.
Michelle Williams: I know, honey. Actually, it has been a busy couple of weeks.
WCT: From where are you calling?
Michelle Williams: I'm in Washington, D.C.
WCT: You are performing Fela! there?
Michelle Williams: Yes. We opened here in D.C. last week so I was able to do two shows; then I had to sneak down to New Orleans for rehearsals to prepare for Super Bowl Sunday.
WCT: You must be excited to come back to Illinois, being originally from Rockford.
Michelle Williams: Yes I am. I'm so excited to be doing the show in Chicago. I love when my family gets to come, especially in the theater. I feel inspired all over again because that is where it began for mein Illinois. It is a way for me to encourage other young people that if I can do it and love what I do. I encourage everyone to do it as well.
WCT: How did you become involved with this show in the first placeanything to do with Jay-Z?
Michelle Williams: No, I was introduced to Bill T. Jones this summer. I had auditioned for another show that he was directing so they also called me to ask if I could do Fela that was touring. I said, "Absolutely!" So that is how that happened.
WCT: How do you relate with your character, Sandra?
Michelle Williams: Sandra is bossy but in a good way. She just saw potential in people and wanted them to reach it. That is the same way with me. My sisters called me a sergeant. Every time I would come home, I was bossing. I was trying to encourage everyone to get it together.
WCT: I saw the show last time I played in Chicago. It is not a sit-down type production; it is a "get up on your feet and dance around" [show].
Michelle Williams: Yes. I love the part when Fela has people get up out of their seats to do the song "Clocks." I cannot wait. I will be peeking out of the curtain at the audience to see if my mom can wind her hips. Wind it, mommy!
WCT: Fela! is more like a concert.
Michelle Williams: It really is. I think people are quite surprised. I saw it on Broadway and also on opening night in London. The audience didn't expect for people to come through the audience. In the beginning some of the dancers walk through the aisles and people are like, "Aren't they supposed to be onstage? Are they supposed to be out here?" Now that I am in the show I understand why it's done that way. It's because it's people that were picked to be at the last show at The Shrine in Nigeria. I can hardly wait for my family and friends to see it.
WCT: I spoke recently to his son, Femi, who is still out touring.
Michelle Williams: Femi was here in D.C. on the 25th. I didn't get to see him but he was here doing a concert.
WCT: Where else are you touring to after Chicago?
Michelle Williams: Charlotte, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Philly, L.A., Seattle. I think I even saw some cities in Mexico. Hopefully, I will get to go to Moscow and South Africa when they do the international dates.
WCT: You are no stranger to musicals. I saw you in The Color Purple last time it was here.
Michelle Williams: Thank you. Since then I have performed in the musical Chicago on the West End and on Broadway; then I toured with it, also. I got caught up in theater and almost forgot I was a music artist. That is why I recorded this album. There is just something with theater that makes me happy!
WCT: Had you done many musicals when you were younger?
Michelle Williams: Well, you know how in school where they have the gifted program. You had to audition to get into the school for the Creative and Performing Arts program called CAPA. I am a proud CAPA alumni. Two of my good friends that have danced for Cher, Madonna and Janet Jackson all came out of the Auburn High School in Rockford. Their names are Kevin and Marcel Wilson. They are dynamic dancers so I am proud. We all came out of that program and we are doing what we love.
WCT: You guest-judged on RuPaul's Drag Race not too long ago.
Michelle Williams: That was just hilarious. Those girls were seriouswork!
WCT: You have been working on some anti-bullying projects as of late, I read.
Michelle Williams: It is an organization called NVEEE, or National Voices for Equality, Education and Enlightenment. It is based out of Florida. I understand what it is like because I was bullied growing up in school. It is something that I absolutely have a low tolerance for.
WCT: There is so much cyberbullying and even bullying on the subject of Destiny's Child on who is the most famous and talented.
Michelle Williams: It just comes with the territory. Once you put yourself out there in the public, anyone can critique and criticize. You just have to decide what you are going to ingest. Some of it can be constructive and some of it is downright evil. Do people really think they are going to destroy me or have me quit music because of a comment they made? That is what they want. No; you have to keep going. We focus on those miniscule comments instead of the one thousand people that said that they loved you.
WCT: You are right. Why is that?
Michelle Williams: I don't know. I just don't understand.
WCT: Do people mix up your name with the actress Michelle Williams?
Michelle Williams: They do so I am going to start going by Michelle T. Williams. Actually, Tenitra is my first name. This happens all the time, and I think we had the same accounting firm at one point. It was getting to be way too much.
WCT: When are you putting out new solo music?
Michelle Williams: Hopefully around June.
WCT: How hard was it to keep the Super Bowl appearance a secret?
Michelle Williams: It was so hard. I had to lie, lie, lie. At the same time I was promoting the musical Fela, the Destiny's Child rumor came out. We were trying to keep it a surprise. Beyonce didn't want anyone to know about it.
WCT: Will you be going back out on the road as a group?
Michelle Williams: We will see. I know we have a new song called "Nuclear." I know it wasn't an official single but we wanted a new song to put on the compilation CD that came out a couple of days ago.
WCT: Let's play the Nunn's Name Game. One word about Kelly Rowland…
Michelle Williams: Giver. She is a big giver.
Michelle Williams: Loving. I love knowing that side of them. I have been around them the past couple of days. It is just a joy to know them personally and be proud of all of what they are doing.
Dance to the afrobeat until the break of dawn with Williams Feb. 19-23 at the Arie Crown Theater, 2301 S. Lake Shore Dr.
For more information and to purchase tickets visit www.felaonbroadway.com .