'Fela' actress Paulette Ivory 'stepped it up' after meeting real person

When I was offered an interview with London-born and American-based singer and actress Paulette Ivory, I looked forward to talking to her for two reasons. At one point in her career, she appeared in one of my favorite British shows, "EastEnders," and she's starring in a play I simply love, "Fela!," which is onstage at Sidney Harman Hall through Oct. 9.

In the high-energy and hypnotic "Fela!," a show filled with music, dancing in the aisles and powerful, historic video and still photos, Ivory plays the role of Sandra Izsadore. Sandra is the intellectual, militant, American girlfriend of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian father of Afrobeat, who used his music as a weapon to rebel against the corrupt military regimes that ran his homeland. In the play, Ivory's voice soars as she sings and dances her way into the hearts of the audience with authority.

Ivory didn't play the role of Sandra in the electrifying, Tony-award-winning Broadway production of "Fela!," which I saw last year. But she was cast in the part in sold-out performances at the National Theatre in London, before taking on the role in the popular U.S. national tour of the play.

She said she's playing the role of Sandra Izsadore very differently from her London performances as a result of meeting the real Sandra in Los Angeles this year. After getting to know Izsadore, who greatly influenced Fela's political activism in Nigeria, Ivory felt changes in the character were necessary.

"She was an educated, militant Black Panther member and although I was playing her pretty strong before, once I met her, I realized she had a stronger character and presence that you paid attention to when she talked or was in a room," Ivory said. "So, I tapped into her energy and the woman I know her to be and stepped it up. The director and others who'd seen the show in London noticed right away and said, 'Wow, you're a different person.' "

She added that meeting Izsadore, who's seen the Washington show several times, was "incredible because it's not often that you get to meet and become friends with a person you're portraying on stage."

Over her theater career, Ivory has starred in numerous productions in the U.S. and abroad, such as "The Lion King," and was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for best actress in "AIDA." But when the "Fela!" tour ends, she plans to focus on television and film. She has had movie and television parts before in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "The Young and the Restless," "Girlfriends" and a show about very ordinary and diverse people living their lives on a square in London that I watch most Saturday mornings: "EastEnders."

"I was a model who came to the square and ended up slapping the main character, Frank," she said. "It was so much fun to be in the square because I grew up watching 'EastEnders' and when I was on set, I took my camera out and took pictures," she added laughing.

It was fun talking with Ivory, someone who enjoys "EastEnders" like I do, whom I could laugh with as we recalled antics of various scoundrels on the show. None of my friends watch "EastEnders," so this was a treat for me. As to the possibility of a reappearance on the show as she switches gears to television, Ivory said, "My role was just a guest spot for one episode. I was hoping the character would stay, but she didn't."

Oh well, but Ivory still has her hands full. She just finished shooting the first film she has ever written, "In Destiny's Hands," a romance thriller, which she stars in and produced with her director-fiancé, Laurens Van Charante. They plan to marry in January and she says Sandra Izsadore is on the guest list.

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