When the curtain rises on the Lion King stage show in Vancouver, the soothsayer Rafiki will let loose with a musical call to the animal kingdom that seems like it can be heard all the way to Africa. Leading into the blockbuster’s signature song, “The Circle of Life”, it’s a moment of such unleashed vocal power that it rivals the opening of any musical out there.
That song sets the tone for the whole show, and actor Tshidi Manye, a South African who has played the role on the world’s stages for more than 14 years, is fully aware of the responsibility it carries. The way she says she makes it explode is by rooting it in truth and thinking of her homeland, every single time she steps out there to perform.
“Now we have cellphones, email, Facetime, but in the older days in South Africa, we just had somebody with a bike that had to go to deliver a message. Or in some villages they didn’t have a bike, so somebody had to walk miles or someone had to blow a horn if there was a message,” begins the charismatic actor and singer, one of more than half a dozen from her country who play key roles in the megashow, speaking to the Straight from her home in New York. “So for me, I’m imagining myself as that somebody: saying, ‘Get ready, we’re starting now, pay attention.’ I’m taking myself back home.”
Perhaps Manye’s most fascinating connection to the role, though, is through her direct knowledge of the female sangomas—South Africa’s traditional healers or shamans that director Julie Taymor based Rafiki’s role on, differentiating it from the baboon in the animated film. Manye has two family members who are sangomas, and their visions are integrated into everyday life where she grew up.
“It’s a gift that has to be given to you, not something where you can wake up and say, ‘I’m going to be a sangoma,’ ” Manye explains. “My niece, she would wake up with dreams and then in the long run, what she saw, it would happen. We believe our ancestors or some kind of guardian angels give you this gift. It’s more than a clairvoyant or a medium; it’s more spiritual.”
Singing and dancing were also a way of life for Manye, the daughter of a playwright and a trombone player. Before being scouted for The Lion King, she had never studied music in school, though that didn’t stop her from landing gigs with Paul Simon and David Byrne, as well as later appearing in the touring musical Sarafina. “In my neighbourhood singing for us is like a healing. We sing when we’re happy, we sing when we’re sad, we sing when we’re sick, and sometimes we make up songs as we go along. We just know how to come in with parts,” she says.
Her longest-running role is Rafiki, in the musical based on the 1994 Disney animated film with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. Because it draws strongly from her homeland, doesn’t it make Manye, who now bases herself in New York and tours widely, yearn constantly for her country?
“I miss it so bad,” she admits. “The last time I was home was in December 2013. My son is going to school here; my goal is to let him finish school before going back.”
But it helps hugely, she adds, that there is such a strong contingent of South Africans in her touring show—a show whose cast can feel like one big family.
“Every time before we start the show,” she says, “we go and start singing some South Afri
The Lion King is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Thursday (June 18) to July 12.