The ‘Lion King’ Result: 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; today each year Disney teams visit Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town to cast additional. “It’s like the spiritual foundation of ‘The Lion King’,” Ms. Taymor said.

The life is hard – performers, generally adults, leave their parents, and often their children, behind, often relocating to countries where they don’t speak the words. 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 residence without electricity, hearing news on a battery-powered radio and hoping to 1 day time become an announcer, started auditioning.

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

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

All have already 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 set studio, rehearsing her reproachful stare while a makeup artist touches up her face. Concurrently she and a words adviser on headset are quibbling about how best to expression “Where is your shirt?” in Zulu.

It’s quite a distance from Pride Rock.

Ms. Mhlongo, 38, is usually a “Lion King” victory storyline – a grateful alumna who parlayed a stint with Disney into a significant tv set career back home. She now superstars on “Generations: The Legacy,” South Africa’s second-most popular soap opera, or soapie, playing a nurse married to a mobster.


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

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“I knew I’d come backside, because I wanted to make my brand in South Africa,” Ms. Mhlongo explained. Filming was over; breathless after a quick wig-and-costume change, she apologized that her commonly fashionable character had been dressed casually for the late-night living room picture.

Ms. Mhlongo, who grew up in KwaMashu – a township north of Durban where black people had been resettled during apartheid – was a teenage mom when she first saw the animated “Lion King,” and learned that seeing the video recording soothed her baby girl. (They would miss the sad stampede scene.)

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

Although many South Africans, like Ms. Moeketsi, try out year after year, Ms. Mhlongo was hired at that moment to take up Rafiki in “Event of the Lion King,” a 30-minute revue, at Hong Kong Disneyland. She left a 3-year-old child and a 6-year-old girl 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 jogging in Germany for 16 years.

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

Rafiki is the one principal component regularly played by a good South African woman. Inspired by a sangoma, a kind of South African faith healer who, relating to belief, can channel ancestral spirits, the type was troublesome for Ms. Mhlongo, since it has been for various other South African ladies, because she felt sometimes unable to manage dark feelings she believed the ancestors had been surfacing. (Some productions keep sage and various other herbs on hand as antidotes.)

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She recovered – “I had to quickly and pray, and in the home they had to accomplish a whole lot of ceremonies” – and her job resumed. She performed in the ensemble, while understudying Rafiki, in Johannesburg and on Broadway, and played the role on tour in THE UNITED STATES.

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