Article by Luis Vazquez
Photo by Xue Liang
The Lion King on Stage is a celebration of culture, of family, strength in relationships, while dealing with issues that reflect a world in which good versus evil is not as well defined. That’s why we watch the players who represent characters that are as timeless as time. We have a father-son dynamic, good vs evil, treachery, unlikely alliances, death, and a most uncomfortable transition of boy to manhood, girl to womanhood, and how the two collectively define their lives as the stars of the kings watch over them.
We were able to probe these topics as well as other diverse subjects with four members of the Lion King on Stage, a show currently in its nineteenth season, at the site of their New York performances, the Minskoff Theatre. They were Jelani Remy (Adult Simba), Adrienne Walker (Adult Nala), Tshidi Manye (Rafiki), and Pia Hamilton (Ensemble).
By learning how our four talented performers came to this common destination we come to a better understanding of what drives our favorite characters and by extension we learn about ourselves but in a neater package.
We start with Rafiki, the sage who serves as a sort of storyteller of the present and future, played by South African actress, Tshidi Manye. We find on the road to casting that often the role that is won is not always the expected or originally desired. Manye’s expectations were much more ambitious at the start. She tells us the story. “The role I thought I was going to play in my mind was Nala little did I know,” Tshidi laughed at the irony, “When I realized what it takes, I said ‘I’m ok with who I am.’ I can’t dance, or jump or do any of those things that being Nala demands.”
Before anyone can make the connection between the actor and the role, it’s up to the performer to discover the link and the method to display that fusion between the two that the audience recognizes immediately. To make Rafiki work, Tshidi understands the key to the role. “As an actor, you have to make sure that people can believe in the story that you tell,” Manye pointed out, “It has to be authentic, truthful. You have to be the role because you are telling someone else’s story. Eye Contact is important. I welcome that person into the story.”
And the world Tshidi brings you into through her character is the one of a medium or in South African terms is called a Sangoma or diviner. Manye knows family members who are Sangoma’s and it is where she derives much of Rafiki’s character. “It’s a character that’s home, I grew up with and I always watched,” Tshidi explained, “The difference between a medium here and a Sangoma is when they come to you they have a sound, they have to be vocal about it. When we hear them we know as a family we have things to do so they can work on that person.”
Conversely the power of a woman is in her silence. The recent elections were a tough pill for women whose hopes lay with Hilary Clinton. But for those mothers who relate to pain and sorrow like it’s a trip to the grocery, women are the foundations that must remain upright no matter the conditions. “We call women pillars. They hold up the structures of whatever it is,” Manye said, “Once that structure falls, everyone falls. We are building a nation. But we never show our downfall. We always have to be strong.”
There is a part in the Lion King where you see a single character rolling the Gazelle wheel or maybe part of a group representing the female lion hunters. Often the ensemble actors will play up to six characters in a show. One of those actresses is Pia Hamilton. “I feel in the Lion King the ensemble helps carry the show,” Pia explained,” Without it the show wouldn’t make sense.
Pia also happens to be Asian-American. As a child she played in the original Barney series and now she plays many diverse roles which reflect her Philippine heritage which shares both Spanish and Asian cultures. But in contrast to her early days Pia has noticed how difficult it is for Asian-Americans to be placed in shows. “It can be challenging in the sense that there are not a lot of roles for us,” Pia explained.
The efforts it takes an actor to attain a role may very well fall on research for a specific show. Pia was able to land a role in Lion King using that knowledge. “I have been fortunate and to be blessed to dance and act in specific roles. In Lion King I had to search for them,” Pia pointed out, “I knew that they had an Asian-American track in the show. I have the ability to be cast.”
Pia appears as the Gazelle pusher. We see her dancer’s body but we don’t know it’s her at first. It serves her well to this day as she currently owns a studio in Chicago she has run for nine years in addition to performing, something she still counts as one of her proudest accomplishments. “It was a challenge as a female owner,” Pia recalled, “One of the big things is being able to touch people with my gift as a teacher or on stage and share my passion for the art of dance.”
Despite the growing number of Asians in the United States, the Philippines are known mostly these days for boxer Manny Pacquiao and little else. Pia attempted to fill that gap for us. “One of the best things about my heritage I learned is the sense of family. They are very giving and loving people. Once you’re part of the family you are always part of the family,” Pia said, “Sometimes I think that is what the world needs, love and culture. Whenever I meet another Filipino we hug right away. That’s the kind of people we are.”
Pia of course has aspirations beyond the roles she plays. She shared her desire to return to the screen someday. “I know Disney is doing a Mulan movie and I would like to be part of that, love, love, love, “ Pia laughs, “I just want to get back into film and television as my next stepping stone.”
Pia agrees with the notion of strong women as expressed by Nala and the female lions and credits Julie Taymor who penned “Shadowland” which Nala sings and she herself appears as part of the dancing ensemble as an intended move to show women in power. “I feel like Julie specifically made certain parts of the show female heavy,” Pia explained, “It showed the power of women. Life wouldn’t be life without us.”
And without the ensemble the key interconnecting links would be disrupted. But as they do their part we move to the leads. Jelani Remy, was a Lion King fan from a young age, even going as far as using his birthday money to buy the Lion King cassette in which he played all the roles in the privacy of his room. “I would go through the entire tape as one character, rewind it, and then do it all again as each character until it was done. It paid off because I know the show so well now.”
Now he plays Adult Simba in the Lion King on Stage. However he has to play the older version in contrast to the younger one who precedes him on the show yet connect the two for the audience. “It’s important I study that kid and his show and I see what he does and infuse that youthful energy into my show. As long as that carries through you see that it’s a true transition.”
Jelani knows what it’s like to be the kid on stage as he seemed destined to be on shows like “The Lion King” after performing in Disney shows on stage as a child. “I love my Disney family and made friends for life and learned a lot and opened so many doors for me.”
But interestingly he didn’t play Simba at first. Jelani paid his dues as part of the ensemble of the Lion King where he played the hindquarters of the Rhinosauras, taking on the swings until the the opportunity to be an understudy then ultimately to take over the role of Simba. This paralleled Simba who had to find his own way to recapture a position that was his by right in the story after the loss of Mufasa, his father while still a child. The Father to Son relationship is much like that of the younger who studies the older to later take his place in the “Circle of Life.”
“It’s such a devastating thing to go through and I tapped into a place in the character where I can really feel that,” Remi explained, “I had scares where I thought I might lose my father. It’s a scary, unsure, messy place where I have to go to but that’s what’s thrilling and that’s what people connect with. An emotional rollercoaster but that’s life.”
Remy shares a Barbadian and Trinidadian heritage and he found commonalities between that island culture and the South African one prevalent in the cast. “It’s what makes it so special is we all love to share with each other. I might come from that strong Caribbean background of strong family and so does South Africans. Its tradition, it’s very based on truth and love and friendship and we all love each other and that’s what reads on stage.”
The thing that Jelani sees as the most rewarding aspect of his work is related to the Lion King and the part he has as the show approaches its 20th anniversary. Though many have played the role he has already, Jelani still sees opportunities to leave a mark on the show. “To be able to put my little footprint and little personal touch on the show and put a little stamp in the legacy that is the Lion King in Jelani’s way is pretty amazing.”
As many different relationships that are covered in the show, the central one in the second half is Simba and the now Adult Nala played by Adrienne Walker. Nala is a strong lioness who is a heroine as well for women who come across her in the Lion King. “I hope she gives them the encouragement to be strong, opinionated. Sometimes when things aren’t going the way that they hoped, maybe stand out and fight against that.”
Adrienne also had the challenge of playing the older version of Nala after the young actress that sets the tone earlier with young Nala. Since Adrienne has only been on the show for five months it is a double negative as she replaces another established character from before. “I watched how the two Nala’s interacted with young Simba. My role starts there,” Adrienne reflected, “I discovered watching how much strength and how feisty she was. I thought that was a great thing to bring to my character. “
Nala is one of the young lionesses who have to extend their hunting range for limited food sources after Scar steals the throne allowing his Hyena friends to raid the kingdom at will. “The women are the hunters now in life as in the show.”
Nala’s role also demands of her to express through dance the cultural aspects that dominate the show. She dances Balinese while other dancers incorporate several other dances. “The combination of dance and language and traditional authentic South African songs are what brings the culture to life otherwise you are watching the film on stage.”
Audiences assume that actors and actresses seamlessly perform without emotional baggage and that’s why they are so professional. The focus to will oneself to a way of being that may not come naturally is true talent. How much of Nala is present in the real life of Adrienne Walker? “Her heart and loving nature is there. But the strength she has and how bold she can be on stage I wish I can be more comfortable in my daily life,” Adrienne admitted, “I have moments where I feel I am bold and outspoken and say exactly what I’m thinking in the moment but that rarely happens because I’m way too polite.”
So there you have it. Four performers, four ways of approaching the roles they play. The commonality is the way diversity plays together and produces something special like the Lion King on Stage.