We all know the story of The Lion King, an enthralling Disney tale that follows a young lion named Simba who, after coming to terms with the death of his father, Mufasa, must rediscover his destiny. The Lion King on Broadway elevates this classic story. It’s a singular, majestic experience that connects its audience to childhood and leaves them transfixed as the story, music and dancing unfold on the stage.
For twenty years, Simba’s coming of age story has reigned on the Broadway stage. I saw it once as a child in the mid-'90s and again a few weeks ago to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary. The experience was even more magnetic than I'd remembered. As the sun rises (literally) over the darkened theater, actress Tshidi Manye’s voice reigns out loud and clear as she belts, "Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba" opening the show with the iconic song "The Circle of Life." And with that, the audience is transported to Africa's Sahara. Giraffes move nimbly across the stage, and birds and elephants come swooping up through the aisles. It's enchanting to watch the majority black cast electrify the audience. It’s an experience that has become ingrained in actors Lindiwe Dlamini, James Brown-Orleans and Bonita Hamilton -- veterans of the show.
Dlamini has been with the show since it opened in 1997. A lioness and shadow puppets operator, the South African native also acts as a den mother helping to integrate newer cast members into the show. Brown-Orleans and Hamilton aren’t novices either. Brown-Orleans has been with the production for sixteen years handling the puppets and portraying the hyena Banzai, while Hamilton has been with The Lion King for fourteen years as the hyena Shenzi. All three of the actors sat down to chat with Shadow and Act about The Lion King’s legacy and what the show has meant to them.
For Hamilton, The Lion King was an awakening. "It's one of the first shows that I'd ever seen," she said. "I saw it when it was in LA like in 1998 when I was in graduate school. I was sitting there, and I was watching it and it was the most amazing thing that I had ever seen in my life. The whole show I was like, ‘I don't know who I would play or what I would do in this show, but somehow I have to be a part of it.’ I'm from Montgomery, Alabama, and I had never seen such African influences on stage and African American excellence on stage. I'd never witnessed anything like that. It was a coming of age thing for me. I also think that it resonates with audiences throughout the world because it transcends. It transcends cultural barriers, race barriers and age barriers."
For Brown-Orleans, The Lion King has been about the various paths that we go on throughout our lives. "The reason why it resonates with a lot of people and why it has lasted so long is it's a very simple story," he said. "Yet, it's a human story. It's just about all of our journeys. I think that whether people know this or not — we're all Simbas. We're all destined for greatness, but we also have Scars in our lives. We have hyenas in our lives. And at some point, we've all been scared away from our dream, our destiny. We've wandered lost and confused. So, whether we're able to articulate it or not, instinctively we see the show and we know that somehow, someway this is our story, as well."
With thousands of shows under their belts, Hamilton, Brown-Orleans and Dlamini are able to keep things fresh and exciting because they often reflect on their very first performances. "Even today I still remember that day very well because it was just extremely exciting," Dlamini said of the inaugural show. "As soon as you came in the show and you hear the voice, the song that everybody recognizes and starts singing, and you're coming down the aisle, you can feel the audience, the screaming, everything. The audience is pointing at the animals and that energy that resonates with everybody ... that's what made it so special. Then as we came out at the end of the show we were all so happy -- you could tell the show was gonna last for a long long time."
"My Broadway debut was September 29, 2004," Hamilton reflected. "Everyone was so excellent and performing at the top of their game, I was just praying and hoping that I would not let anyone down. That I was capable enough and good enough to carry on the character of Shenzi because Shenzi's a beast -- literally and figuratively. I was a ball of nerves, we started "The Circle of Life" and the tears started rolling. That was pretty much my experience for my first show, for my debut."
Brown-Orleans' first performance was also marked by tears. "I thought I wasn’t going to last a week," he chuckled. "The show really took me out of my comfort zone. I had to learn puppetry, the music, the acting--everything. It was so out of my comfort zone, and I didn't think I was getting it. I would come in on my days off, and I would actually put my puppet in front of a mirror and I'd work and work and work at it. When I opened, I still was not 100 percent sure of myself as a master, doing the show. So, the fact that I could open the show, I cried. I was so grateful that I'd come this far. The Lion King saved my life. It really brought me to a place where, financially, I was secure. I was on shaky ground and suddenly, I had the potential of getting a gig for a year. I'd never done a gig for a year. I knew what that meant, I knew that I was so blessed. The possibilities were so great, so all of that was going through me. The reason why I'm able to keep the show fresh sixteen years later is because I always recall that first day. Whenever the show starts, I always physically regurgitate that first day back again, and again, and again and again."
Since the show is so timeless, there is always something new and enchanting to discover about it. "With The Lion King, you can never be bored," Dlamini said. "It's exciting to be in the show, and on top of it, you have people that keep the show running. We have our resident director, you have a choreographer -- they all make sure the show keeps going. Then with the actors, there are all of these things we can keep being refreshed and reminded of, especially when there are new people coming in the show. They still have that fresh excitement, and you hang on to that."
For Hamilton, the importance of the show cannot be overstated. "I am from the cradle of the Confederacy," she emphasized. "I am from the home of the Civil Rights Movement. I am from Montgomery, Alabama, where we did not see our people elevated and uplifted on stage. I think it's very important for the little girls in Montgomery to see that they, too, can be on the world stage. The sky is the limit. Sometimes it's disappointing for me when I go into the community, and people who have lived in Brooklyn all of their lives say, 'Oh, I've never seen The Lion King.' I'm taken aback. I say, 'You have to support your people. It's for you. This show is for everybody but specifically for you because you get to see yourself in regal roles.'"
The noble nature of The Lion King is evident from its opening number to the final bow. "In 'The Circle of Life,' where the story starts, you have all these animals coming down the aisle," Brown-Orleans said. "Even though they're animals, there's something very regal here and royal about them coming down the aisle. So, right off the bat, as an African American, as a child of color, you have this royalty presented to you. It's almost saying, this is who you are from the get-go. You were born with royal blood in you. Mufasa tells his son, 'Someday the sun will set on my time and will rise with you as the new king.' That's Black Boy Joy! That just fills a child of color with pride! At the same time, you're reminded that you are never alone because great things from the past are always gonna be with you. You are born with greatness already in you, and you've gotta trust that journey, and that circle will bring you back. As long as you trust that journey, it'll bring you back to your greatness. That's why I think that show resonates a lot with a lot of people of color. When you look at the world that you're living in, remember who you are inside. Remember that your ancestors who came from royalty and were brilliant and strong and powerful -- they're guiding you."
For Dlamini, who came to the States from her native South Africa a few years after the end of apartheid, the show has been a healing experience. "When I first came here, there weren't a lot of shows that had people that look like me on Broadway," she remembered. "So with The Lion King, it has employed so many black people, especially Africans who have never ever thought they would be on Broadway one day or on stage internationally. The Lion King is all over the world and you have all these South Africans all over that have been employed in The Lion King. Even here with black people in America, it's so tough out here to get jobs. But The Lion King has been a constant show that has so many people coming in and going out who are black. That means so much and when you see a young kid looking at Nala like, 'Oh my God, there's somebody I can relate to, that's a princess.' You're looking at the queen, you're looking at the king, all these young people when they come in, they know that they can do it. It's been helpful-- it does so many things for us that we have never thought possible."
As The Lion King forges ahead, there is one message that rings loud and clear not just for the show's cast and crew but for audiences across the globe. It is a message that Hamilton was able to articulate beautifully: "Your ancestors are always with you, they're always inside of you -- your ancestors, your loved ones, and God are always with you," she said. "You're never alone, and you can make it."
The award-winning musical The Lion King is currently playing on Broadway.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.