Buyi Zama, who plays Rafiki in Disney’s stage version of The Lion King, finds the musical experience “so beautiful”. Says Zama, “I’ve seen people who come back and say, ‘I saw the show when I was 15 and I really wanted to come back and see it.’ It’s one of those shows that you can’t get enough of.”
Even after a ten-year absence from Sydney, Zama’s confident the musical’s reprise will see many of the initial run’s audience back in its seats. “I’m sure people who have children now want to share the circle of life with their children and loved ones and of course, people will want to see it again. I want to sit in those seats and watch the show also! I just happen to be onstage.”
It’s a position Zama’s held for so long she’s sadly only ever managed to be on the receiving end of this theatrical stage once. This was 11 years ago, and not long after she’d been cast as Rafiki in the West End’s production. “I had just left home [South Africa] and got to London that day and was missing my family,” says Zama. She was excited about the change but missing home. However, as she watched, all separation anxiety melted away. “That scene, when Mufasa returns to talk to Simba… When I saw that, I was ‘sold!’
“Then there was the song ‘He Lives In You’. To me, it was telling me that Africa lives in me. Africa is in me, and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to take Africa with me everywhere I go.’ I love being onstage everyday because I get to speak my language every day. Wherever I am, I get to share part of my culture with the world.”
Since finishing at West End, Zama has shared her culture with Sydney (for The Lion King’s debut in 2003), Las Vegas, Taiwan, Africa, Shanghai among other places around the globe. And now she’s come full circle to reinvigorate Rafiki for the ten-year anniversary of the Sydney show.
“It doesn’t feel like I’ve returned,” she admits. “When I got the call that this production was opening again… Sydney feels like home more than any other place because I was here for so long.” Zama essentially created the role of Rafiki in Sydney. “Back then [in 2003] I was in my shell. I still had a lot of growing to do. I wasn’t as mature as now,” she says. And this transition shows in her performance today.
“I feel like I own the role more,” says Zama, “I felt like I was just wearing it. Now it’s in me.” Maturity and age undoubtedly played a part, but so did years of touring. For unlike much of Sydney’s original cast, who’ve since moved onto other projects, Zama’s your rare breed of a Lion King stalwart, dedicating the last ten years of her life solely to this musical.
“I haven’t really had a break from The Lion King since I started,” she says. “It’s been ongoing.” Which isn’t to suggest that her performance will read like a stale form of childhood de ja vu… Every time I’m in a new company I try to erase everything and start from scratch because it helps me get energy from who I’m onstage with. If I keep thinking that this Simba’s going to be like the other Simba, then the show’s going to be the same.”
Whether you’ve seen it before or it’s your first viewing, one thing’s for sure. From the moment you enter, just as Zama did 11 years ago, Africa will be in you. “You walk in and sit down, you’re transported. That’s the mother land right there.”
BY STEPHANIE YIP
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