Sierra Leone-born, Atlanta-raised and now nationally-known, Duain Richmond is the newest face of Fela! According to Richmond, it’s a dream come true as it will be the first time his family will see him live on stage when he hits Atlanta’s famous Fox Theater. And when he does take the stage in the lead role, he will be holding his own alongside a strong cast which includes Destiny’s Child member and gospel chart-topper Michelle Williams.
Fela! is a musical set in the late 1970’s, based on events in the life of groundbreaking Nigerian composer and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. It portrays Kuti in the days when he was the target of 1,000 government soldiers assigned to end his public performances at the legendary Lagos nightclub The Shrine.
Having earned the lead role, Richmond is officially living his dream. It’s a dream that began with a journey a little over 20 years ago when the grandmother who raised him and his twin brother Dwight one day sent them to New York to a mother who finally saved enough money to get the visas needed to bring her children to a better life before the civil war fueled by the diamond trade ignited the nation.
“I was nine years-old and fresh off the boat,” he recalled. “My English was horrible but we were told this was the land of opportunity. When our mother left, we were babies so when we came to America, it was like meeting her for the first time. I was in New York but didn’t know about Broadway even though I would later aspire to be there. At that time, I was more impressed with American life, Burger King and elevators.”
With his mother’s standard for success in the home, Robinson recalls his days as a youth in College Park, Georgia and his struggle to keep up with his twin who excelled at school while trying to quench his thirst for the arts. He was a part of a rap group and later was one of the students who worked to establish a theater program at his high school.
Still, his brother would indulge him in helping him act out scenes from some of his favorite films.
“The first movie I saw that made me want to do film was Higher Learning,” Richmond says. “I remember watching Omar Epps and thought he was such a great actor. I remember him in Deadly Voyage too. Going over those scenes with him [my brother] from Higher Learning and acting like Laurence Fishbourne who inspired me also… I drove him crazy.”
“Coming from an immigrant background, you must go to college,” he added. “Acting and performing is not a job and you need to go to build a trade and future for yourself. My brother was very much into academics but I was never moved to go into college. I knew what I wanted.”
What Richmond wanted led him to the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble where he finally got the training he desired to push him into acting and musical theater. It also led him to be a part of an ensemble that took him back to Africa for the first time and provide him with an emotional experience that rekindled his drive for ambition. It was also around this time that he decided to venture into film.
“The first movie set I was on was William H. Macy’s The Wool Cap which was Kiki Palmer’s first movie,” Richmond shared. “I didn’t know who he was at the time. Then when I saw his face I realized who he was. I had a small role in the movie where he’s running through the roller coaster and return his hat to him. But on the set, no one seemed to remember my name, so if I knew they were referring to me, I answered. One day Mr. Macy asked me my name and I told him. And he told everyone from now on, please call me by my given name. He took me aside and said, ‘Outside of your talent, your name is all you have’. That was of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten to this day.”
With his first credit as ‘Roller Coaster Guy’ in The Wool Cap, Richmond never looked back. Now, residing in Los Angeles, he first fell in love with the play Fela as a spectator at a New York showing of the play and went on an audition the first chance he got. Despite being told he looked too young to play the lead, Richmond persevered and met up with the cast when they travelled to his area. By that time, he was told he was should start preparing because they wanted to work with him for the role.
“I worked for two and a half weeks and barely slept,” he said. “I had my first show in Detroit with over 2000 people. The show producers where in the audience they sent champagne and a card backstage and said they enjoyed it and looked forward to having me on it.”
In July 2012, Richmond found himself on Broadway in the lead role and still says it hasn’t hit him to have accomplished that goal. One night, while the show ran on Broadway, Richmond was alerted to do acknowledge an A-list celebrity during the curtain call.
“It was Laurence Fishbourne!” he said going from leading man to fan when he heard that one of the people who he admired most had seen him perform live. “That is the career highlight I have so far and it still hasn’t hit, even to this day. He came backstage and he was praising me and my eyes were soooo big and he was just there, telling me how fabulous I was. That is an indescribable feeling.”
Meanwhile, another well known celebrity is sharing the stage with Richmond and he is truly delighted to have her on board.
“Michelle Williams is the most sweetest person in the world,” he said of his costar. “She is such a humble person. There is no diva in her when it comes to being around people. She will go to a restaurant and eat some food just like a normal person and she can be playful one second then hop on stage and blow her a** off. I look forward to seeing how everyone receives her. She comes in and gets it done.”
As for Richmond, being an African man taking on the role of another African man, there is a sense of pride.
“I do want to do more films and television but this particular project is a part of me because it is a part of my culture,” he says. “I couldn’t say no to the show. When it comes to my hometown in Atlanta, I really hope that those who know me can come out and see that it is so much more than me acting in the role and see the story for how it is presented.”
Fela! plays at the Fox in Atlanta from February 28 to March 3, 2013.