The ‘Lion King’ Effect: How a Broadway Smash Changed South African Lives

This month the show celebrated its 20th anniversary. When Ms. Taymor and Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney’s theatrical division, were developing it two decades ago, they helped persuade Actors’ Equity to allow for a contingent of South African performers; now every year Disney teams visit Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town to cast more. “It’s like the spiritual foundation of ‘The Lion King’,” Ms. Taymor said.

The life is hard — performers, generally young adults, leave their parents, and often their children, behind, often relocating to countries where they don’t speak the language. But there is adventure to be had, art to be made, money to be earned.

That’s why Ms. Moeketsi, who grew up in a home without electricity, listening to news on a battery-powered radio and hoping to one day become an announcer, started auditioning.

She had moved from her village to Johannesburg for college, and, as she wrapped up her studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, she saw “The Lion King” as her best hope, professionally and financially.

She was seeking to join a generation of South African performers who have landed jobs in the musical. Some have found new homes, new families, new careers. Others have struggled to translate the opportunity into sustained success.

All have been changed.

‘I Wanted to Make My Name’

The gangster’s wife is worried.

Brenda Mhlongo is seated on a plush couch in a television studio, rehearsing her reproachful stare while a makeup artist touches up her face. At the same time she and a language adviser on headset are quibbling about how best to phrase “Where is your shirt?” in Zulu.

It’s a long way from Pride Rock.

Ms. Mhlongo, 38, is a “Lion King” success story — a grateful alumna who parlayed a stint with Disney into a significant television career back home. She now stars on “Generations: The Legacy,” South Africa’s second-most popular soap opera, or soapie, playing a nurse married to a mobster.

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Brenda Mhlongo, a former Rafiki on Broadway, getting made up on the set of “Generations: The Legacy,” a South African soap opera. She returned home after years in various “Lion King” productions. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times

Along the way she faced years of unemployment and a spiritual crisis. But her journey illustrates the possibilities for “Lion King” performers who spend years on stage overseas and then try to continue working in the arts back home.

“I knew I would come back, because I wanted to make my name in South Africa,” Ms. Mhlongo said. Filming was over; breathless after a quick wig-and-costume change, she apologized that her typically fashionable character had been dressed casually for the late-night living room scene.

Ms. Mhlongo, who grew up in KwaMashu — a township north of Durban where black people were resettled during apartheid — was a teenage mother when she first saw the animated “Lion King,” and discovered that watching the video soothed her baby daughter. (They would skip the sad stampede scene.)

She spent years performing with K-Cap (KwaMashu Community Advancement Projects), an arts program founded and led by her husband. But by 2007, when she learned that Disney was holding auditions in Durban, she was ready for a bigger stage.

Although many South Africans, like Ms. Moeketsi, try out year after year, Ms. Mhlongo was hired on the spot to play Rafiki in “Festival of the Lion King,” a 30-minute revue, at Hong Kong Disneyland. She left a 3-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter to be raised by her husband.

While there she had another stroke of good fortune: She was spotted by a vacationing Disney executive who recruited her to join the “Lion King” production that has been running in Germany for 16 years.

But Ms. Mhlongo only lasted three months in Hamburg, before she left the show, citing “spiritual sickness.”

Rafiki is the one principal part regularly played by a South African woman. Inspired by a sangoma, a type of South African faith healer who, according to belief, can channel ancestral spirits, the character was troublesome for Ms. Mhlongo, as it has been for other South African women, because she felt at times unable to manage dark feelings she believed the ancestors were surfacing. (Some productions keep sage and other herbs on hand as antidotes.)

She recovered — “I had to fast and pray, and at home they had to do a lot of ceremonies” — and her career resumed. She performed in the ensemble, while understudying Rafiki, in Johannesburg and on Broadway, and then played the role on tour in North America.

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