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.”
Continue reading at Shadow and Act.